10/03/2006 11:00PM

Second half-century starts


PHOENIX - After a hugely successful 50th anniversary meeting last year, Turf Paradise opens its 51st season Friday with a nine-race card highlighted by the $24,000 Bienvenidos at a mile on the main track.

The Bienvenidos kicks off a stakes program that comprises 46 events worth over $2.1 million. Purses have been increased for several stakes, including the Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, named after the late coach and executive of the Phoenix Suns. The Fitzsimmons had its purse raised from $40,000 to $75,000, and will be run Jan. 6. Both the Turf Paradise Derby and Phoenix Gold Cup had their purses raised from $75,000 to $100,000. The derby is slated for Feb. 17 and the Gold Cup for Feb. 24 on a card that also includes the $75,000 Turf Paradise Handicap. The Arizona Juvenile Stakes and the Glendale and Sun City handicaps have been each been raised from $40,000 to $50,000.

The 156-day meet runs through May 6, 2007. Live racing will be conducted five days a week, generally Friday through Tuesday, with the track open seven days a week for simulcast wagering.

The Bienvenidos, for 3-year-olds and upward, lured a field of 10, with favoritism likely falling to California raider Mambo Dancer. A 7-year-old gelding, Mambo Dancer has won 5 of his last 8 races and finished second in the other three, and he comes off three blowout victories. Most recently he won a starter handicap at Fairplex Park by 9 1/4 lengths.

Yavapai hotshots His Way and Instantly, one-two finishers in the Mile Hi Handicap there Aug. 27, are also entered, as are recent Ruidoso Derby winner Loopy Louie and Yavapai Derby hero Flying Strawberry. Toss in multiple local winner College Graduate and northern California sharpie Gold Bankers Gold and you have an intriguing way to open the meet.

The public will see familiar faces in the jockeys' room and in the training ranks. Leading jockey Miguel Hernandez will be back to defend his title, and those who chased him home last season are also expected back, including Glen Corbett, Wilson Dieguez, Scott Stevens, Steve Gomez, Daniel Vergara, Jorge Carreno, and Leslie Mawing.

Last season's leading conditioner, Troy Bainum, is expected back in full force, along with Dan McFarlane, Don Mills, Eric Kruljac, Molly Pearson, Jim Hill, Bart Hone, Jerry Atkin, Raul Gonzalez, Keith Bennett, Justin Evans, and Joe Toye.