04/07/2008 11:00PM

Sandburr still improving at age 9

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At a time when many of his counterparts have long since retired from the racetrack, Sandburr is still going strong at the ripe old age of 9. Thursday night he will be among the favorites in the opening-night Premiere Stakes at Lone Star Park, a race he won last year as an 8-year-old, and if his better races from this year are any indication, he stands a strong chance to defend his title.

To hear his trainer, Mike Stidham, describe him, Sandburr isn't merely the horse he was last year; he has run even faster at times this year than at any point in his 55-race career. He said that in two starts preceding a fourth-place finish in a Sam Houston stakes, Sandburr ran lifetime "tops" on the Ragozin Sheets, which Stidham uses to measure the performances of his horses.

No wonder Stidham calls Sandburr a "barn favorite" - or perhaps it is the $303,740 he has earned in 17 starts since being claimed for $20,000 by his trainer for Feel the Thunder Stable at Sam Houston in April of 2006. That kind of production tends to endear a horse to his connections.

"That's what racing is all about, hanging around for that long, and at 9 being at his best," Stidham said.

Sandburr, a Sandpit gelding, was not at his best in the Spring Stakes at Sam Houston on March 22, when he finished fourth as the favorite behind Goosey Moose, another Premiere starter. The loss, Stidham believes, was the result of racing seven furlongs, shorter than the horse's best. Stidham said he had hoped to capitalize on the fact that the Spring was restricted to Texas-breds, but the race was simply too short for Sandburr.

There are no excuses in the one-mile Premiere, a race for Texas-breds that he won last year by 3 1/2 lengths over Goosey Moose.

Familiar faces include Calhoun, Autrey

The barn area at Lone Star this spring and summer will look largely the same as in past meets, said racing secretary Larry Craft. Once again, trainers Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, Cody Autrey, Chris Hartman, John Locke, and Donnie Von Hemel will have large groups of horses, each having more than 50 stalls apiece at the track.

Although Stidham races the bulk of his stable in Kentucky and Illinois at this time of year, he, too, will continue to have a presence at Lone Star.

"Right now I've got 15 there," he said Tuesday. "And we'll probably keep 15 to 20 over the meet."

Stidham's continued involvement in Texas racing is tied to relationships with clients from the state, particularly Bob McNair's Stonerside Farm, for whom he trains 2007 Kentucky Cup Juvenile winner Texas Fever.

Pick five with low takeout joins betting menu

Lone Star's new pick five wager, with its low 12 percent takeout, can be bet in $1 denominations and is structured much like a pick six.

If no one selects all five winners, betting funds will carry over to the next racing day. In that case, 75 percent of the available pool would carry over, and the remaining 25 percent returned as a consolation payoff.

Other notable exotic wagers on the Lone Star betting menu include 10-cent superfectas and a 50-cent pick four.

Asmussen bobbles at the start

Asmussen isn't sure quite what to make of his likeness being painted upon thousands of bobbleheads for a giveaway Thursday evening. What he knows, though, is that his friends and family aren't about to let him forget about it.

"It's a new level of embarrassment," he said Tuesday. "Even my kids are making fun of me."

He is, however, proud of his involvement with racing at Lone Star Park, his hometown track, where he has won nine of the track's 10 meet titles. Asmussen, his wife, Julie, and their three sons - Keith, Darren, and Erik - reside in nearby Arlington.

Asmussen will be at Lone Star on opening night, and will sign free autographs from5-6 p.m. He will have his usual busy night of racing, starting five horses, including Rain on Monday in the Premiere Stakes.