04/30/2008 12:00AM

Stakes purses higher as track hits milestone

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Assiniboia Downs will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, and the Winnipeg racetrack's 70-day meeting begins Friday evening.

Racing secretary Ray Miller put together an eight-race card for opening night with 62 horses entered for a program that begins at 7:05 p.m. Central. All of Friday's races will be run at five furlongs.

The opening-night feature, an open allowance for fillies and mares, attracted a field of six, including recent Portland Meadows stakes winner Blanding.

Her opponents include Spillway, who will be the first starter of the meeting for last year's leading trainer, Martin Drexler.

Racing will continue here Saturday and Sunday, and Miller expects all but about 100 of the track's 945 available stalls to be filled by the weekend.

"I think we're going to be all right, with the horse population and with riders," said Miller. "We get a lot of in-and-out action, a lot of big turnover of smaller outfits. When South Dakota and North Dakota are over, we get them. And for the stakes, I'm hearing a lot of action out of Alberta."

All of the major outfits are back this year, and the newcomer with the most horses is trainer Shawn Davis, who is coming off his first meeting at Turf Paradise and will have upwards of a dozen stalls here.

Davis has four horses entered on opening night.

The jockey colony remains a bit thin but has been bolstered by the return of Janine Stianson, who won 65 races last year while competing mainly at Alberta's Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, and Yannick Hardy, who was winless in 11 races in his first campaign at Marquis Downs.

Miller expects other jockeys to surface here soon.

The stakes program, which begins May 31 with the Golden Boy, includes 31 races worth a total of $13 million. The schedule includes 14 open stakes that had their purses increased from $45,000 to $50,000 in order to meet new black-type requirements.

The highlight of the meeting will be the $100,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby, which will be run Aug. 4 on a program that also includes the $50,000 Wheat City, Assiniboia Oaks, and Debutante.

Two $75,000 stakes, the Matron Breeders' Cup and Gold Breeders' Cup, will be contested on the meeting's closing weekend, Sept. 20-21.

Racing will be offered Friday through Sunday, with three holiday Mondays added plus four Tuesdays in July, including Canada Day.