12/09/2002 12:00AM

Series gets off to good start on track-record $5M handle

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HOUSTON - Although a formal decision has yet to be made on the future of the Great State Challenge, the consensus among industry officials involved in the inaugural running of the six-race series Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park is that the program is worth renewing.

The competition, which featured divisional matchups of horses bred in 10 different states, was won by Kentucky.

"I'm confident that the concept will be retained, and that some version will be done again," said Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "I think Sam Houston did a great job, and it came off very well. It was a strong promotion for horse racing in a very important market for racing."

Sam Houston, in the nation's fourth-largest market, broke its record for handle with $5,083,692 bet on the 10 races. That figure shattered the mark of $3.5 million on the Texas Champions Day card in 1999. Attendance was 12,380, a bit short of the 15,000 that track officials had hoped for.

"The $5 million was basically just about what we thought it would do, and while we were hoping for a few more people, we were happy with the way it worked out," said Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston. "We'll certainly put in a pitch for it for next year."

Bork said handle might have doubled if the six races had 14 horses each.

When fields were drawn, only 49 of the 84 horses invited to compete in the series entered the races, and from that group, three scratched. The shortest field was in the Distaff, which had only four horses, led by Take Charge Lady.

"As you would expect with any one-of-a-kind, first-time event, a lot of guys are looking at ways to increase participation and strengthen field size," said Smith.

Bork said a pre-entry fee might be one way to weed out horsemen who aren't really serious about running their horses. Eric Johnston, racing secretary at Sam Houston, said getting more states involved is an obvious goal. Of the 17 states and provinces that were eligible to compete, only 10 entered horses.

Johnston said he would like to see the program expanded, offering a turf race and a sprint race for fillies and mares.

Among state breeding organizations, Smith said there was talk of coordinating the calendar of statebred championship days to increase participation.

Aside from new ideas, some rules already in place will need to be reviewed, including one that restricted the number of starters each state could have in a race to two. That kept the Classic, which fielded five betting interests, from having more starters. Kentucky-bred Discreet Hero had to be excluded from the race because starters Easyfromthegitgo and Big Numbers, who were coupled, were both bred in Kentucky.

Kentucky's numbers helped lift the state to victory in the team competition, with a 10-8-6-4-2-1 points system. The state sent out more starters than any other, 11, and won one race, the Distaff, with Take Charge Lady.

California won two races from four starters and finished fourth while Florida also won two races - but from seven starters - and finished second, beaten points by Kentucky.

Smith said he was anxious to hear feedback on the Great State Challenge during an informal meeting this week at the Symposium on Racing in Tucson, Ariz..

"It's a concept that's worth working on, refining, and making better," said Smith.