10/21/2003 12:00AM

Starting earlier and ending later

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Although Sam Houston Race Park in Houston has made a number of changes to its meet, which starts Thursday, the most significant could be opening the week of the Breeders' Cup, which can set the tone for the track's 10th season. The meet runs 93 days, through April 10.

Sam Houston typically opens in November, but is running a longer meet this year, and for the first time in three years will open the week of the Breeders' Cup.

"We think it will have a dramatic impact for us," said Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston. "What a wonderful way to start a meet off, with a big day like that and an opportunity to attract a lot of people for the Breeders' Cup."

To take full advantage of the day, Sam Houston has pushed up its first post for Saturday's card from 7 p.m. Central to 5 p.m. "We'll go directly from the Breeders' Cup into our live program," said Bork.

It is a formula that has worked before. The last time Sam Houston raced on Breeders' Cup Day was 2000, and the $3.8 million wagered - on both Sam Houston's live races and the simulcast of the Breeders' Cup - ranks as the fifth largest handle in track history.

In addition to the earlier start date this meet, Sam Houston will close later. In the past, the season has wrapped at the end of March. But this meet, Sam Houston will run 13 more dates than last season, and as a result will continue racing into April.

The calendar shift gave Sam Houston a chance to change the date for its richest race, the $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup, to closing day, April 10. The 1 1/8-mile turf race, which had been run at the end of February, is the richest of 37 stakes worth $2.1 million this meet.

The new date of the Connally Cup eliminates a previous conflict with the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and it puts the track in a position to draw some top horses from the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz, formerly the Explosive Bid, at Fair Grounds.

Bork is hopeful the Connally will pick up graded status.

In other changes, post for one of Sam Houston's biggest nights, Texas Champions Day, has been moved up to 6 p.m. The stakes-filled program, which is worth $650,000, was moved back three weeks to mid-November last year to serve as a prep for the inaugural NTRA Great State Challenge at Sam Houston. It will keep a similar date this year, Nov. 15, despite the fact that the Challenge will not be held in 2003.

"We thought we'd leave Texas Champions Day in November in the hopes that we would have the Great State Challenge come back next year in December," said Bork, noting that Sam Houston and various breed organizations are working to seek the sponsors needed to reinstate the Challenge for 2004.

Sam Houston has also beefed-up its $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup card on Jan. 17. The track has added two supporting stakes to the program, the $50,000 Sprint Handicap and the $50,000 Distaff. Also on that date, Sam Houston will host, for the first time, the Texas Thoroughbred Association's annual banquet and awards ceremony. It had been held in a hotel in Austin.

"That's expected to be a big night," said Bork.

Sam Houston, which will pay out more than $110,000 a day in purses, has added a sprint and a distance starter series for the new meet, and on a nightly basis will be simulcasting its races to New York.

As for constants at the meet, the track will again offer a reduced 12 percent takeout on its live pick three wagers.