04/07/2008 12:00AM

Season features big fields, turf


OPELOUSAS, La. - Evangeline Down kicks off its 43rd season of racing Wednesday night and, unlike at many tracks, full fields are the rule at this one-mile dirt track in southern Louisiana. A total of 113 horses were entered for 10 races on opening night, and Thursday's card did even better with 121.

"It's amazing the response we have had and continue to have," racing secretary Jason Boulet said. "You hear of all the problems around the country about filling races, but not here. If we have a problem, it is that some horsemen have concerns about being able to get into a race and run."

A turf course that is under construction is expected be in place before the meeting concludes on Labor Day, Boulet said.

"We have discussed the situation with management and we fully expect to at least introduce the turf course toward the end of the season," Boulet said. "There won't be a lot of racing on the grass, but the last condition book will give us a taste of what will be in store for next year."

Evangeline Downs is coming off a big season. The 2007 spring-summer meeting produced across-the-board increases in total handle, ontrack handle, purse distribution, and average field size over the 2006 season.

The meet's 25 stakes are worth a record $2.02 million, up more than 12 percent from last year. New on the calendar are the $75,000 Opelousas Stakes for 2-year-old fillies to be run Aug. 30, the $60,000 Salute Stakes for Louisiana-bred 3-year-old fillies on June 13, and the $60,000 Acclaim Stakes for statebred 3-year-old colts and geldings on June 14.

There will be the usual focus on Louisiana-breds during the 85-day season, highlighted by Louisiana Legends Night. The 11-race program, all stakes restricted to Louisiana-breds, will be run July 4.

* Wednesday night's opening-day feature is an allowance race, but it has five stakes winners in the field.

Among them are Watchem Smokey, a former Evangeline track-record holder who won a $50,000 claiming event early in the year at Fair Grounds, and Venomous, who will be making his first start since winning the Temperance Hill Stakes at Louisiana Downs last summer.