08/02/2004 11:00PM

Strong finish for successful meeting

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. - While ontrack handle has basically been flat during the first three stops of the northern California fair circuit, it has been up at the Sonoma County Fair.

And the best racing is yet to come.

Ontrack handle is up 4 percent over last year, although it is down by that same amount at the satellite facilities. Handle has generally been down at the satellites this year with more and more people using account wagering.

The ontrack handle, though, is a pleasant boost. And out-of-state wagering has risen 29 percent, leading to an overall 5 percent increase even before account wagering figures are added.

The handle should be even stronger the second week of the meet with four Thoroughbred stakes scheduled for the final four days of the meet, which ends Monday.

On Friday, local 3-year-olds get their only chance at a route stakes this summer in the $40,000-added James Lyttle at 1 1/16 miles. Eight were nominated, including Razen Hazen, winner of the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes here last year.

On Saturday the $100,000 Joseph Grace, the only six-figure stakes on the fair circuit, will be run at 1 1/16 miles.

The $40,000-added Cavonnier at 5 1/2 furlongs will be run for 2-year-olds on Sunday and the $40,000-added Elie Destruel, a six-furlong race for fillies and mares, is scheduled for closing day Monday.

Four stakes for non-Thoroughbreds will also be offered over the weekend.

Favorite Times one to beat

Six 3-year-old fillies meet in Thursday's feature, a $40,000 optional claimer at six furlongs. Favorite Times, second as the favorite in the Fairfield Stakes at Solano, appears the one to beat, although Striking Cobra, claimed in her last start at Hollywood Park by leading trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, should also be a factor and gets the advantage of the outside draw.

Whirley Side finds his specialty

Whirley Side has some talent but also has some physical limitations that keep him in the $12,500 claiming range.

He has become a specialist in 870 yard mixed-breed races. He won the Jack Robinson at Pleasanton and the Santa Rosa Marathon on Sunday here, overcoming trouble to score a decisive victory.

Owner-trainer Dennis Ward entered him in a tough $6,250 starter handicap last Saturday but always planned to run in the marathon.

Whirley Side came from just off the pace to win on Sunday.

"It's the same thing," Ward said. "Sit there and wait till the Quarter Horse tires."

Revised time for Finley

Because construction of the turf course has rendered much of the electrical equipment in the infield useless this meet, all times at the Sonoma County Fair have been hand-timed this year.

Head timer Melody Truitt was concerned about the fractions she got for Saturday's Ernest Finley Handicap: 20.70 seconds, 42.71, 55.00, and a final time of 1:07.93.

"I couldn't sleep last night worrying about it," she said Sunday after going to the video truck and replaying the race. Her early fractions weren't as far off as she imagined, but the official clocking of the race is now: 20.86, 42.96, 55.96, 1:08.10.

New mule rivalry

It used to be Black Ruby and Taz, but now it's Smoking Joe and Sarah Nelson as far as the mules go.

Smoking Joe has won two straight in the battle between the two 5-year-olds. Sarah Nelson won the Millennium Mule Challenge at Solano when Smoking Joe could not run after getting cast in his stall.

Not only do the mules have a rivalry, but so do the trainers.

Candice Coffee, trainer of Sarah Nelson, and Jackie Payton, trainer of Smoking Joe, competed as riders, and now compete as trainers.

Coffee has nine mules and an Arabian in her barn.

She went to Texas trying to get more rides and wound up working at the barns. After retiring from riding, she began training saddle horses until she got the chance to train mules for Roger Downey.

"His mules are well-behaved," she said. "I always watched they way they trained, and I used to get on them so I can relate to the riders."

Coffee said mules are better now than when she rode in the late 1990's. "Not just physically, but mentally," she said. "They send them to the track well-broken now."

Show dough

Taz, known for his legendary battles with Black Ruby, had a Rubyesque wager placed on him when he ran in a mule allowance race Thursday.

Black Ruby was a favorite of bridge jumpers, who seldom missed a chance to cash a show bet on her. It got so bad many fairs stopped allowing show wagering in her races.

Taz caused a $21,289 minus show pool after winning the 350-yard race.

There was $101,490 in the show pool, $99,943 on Taz. Little John, who ran third, was second in the show pool wagering with $498.

Taz won the race by a half-length over Evelyn Nelson, his full twin sister.

Artificial insemination is allowed with mules. Taz and Evelyn Nelson were sired by Coalie McGee with eggs from Mesmerizer. The eggs were then implanted in different mares. Taz and Evelyn Nelson had a third sibling, but that mule died.

When Black Ruby was at her peak, Taz and Evelyn Nelson were the only mules to defeat her.