04/12/2004 11:00PM

Time to bone up on Lone Star

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Tex. - It might be the Year of the Monkey on the Chinese calendar. But as far as the Thoroughbred world is concerned, 2004 seems destined to be remembered as the year Texas staked its claim on the horse racing game.

For the last seven years, since Lone Star Park opened its doors April 17, 1997, the greater racing universe has paid Texas only occasional flights of attention. Oh, sure, there would be a stakes race every once in awhile, sporting enough zeroes to snag a few runners from New York, Kentucky, or California. Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, Bobby Frankel, and Chris Clement have all added Texas-sized checks to their stable take in the last few seasons, and the money spends just fine.

The All-Star Jockey Challenge was created by Lone Star management and taken up by the NTRA as a legitimate promotional hit, bringing America's finest riders together for a day and a night of the best possible fan interaction.

In fact, first-class Texas racing at Lone Star answered a growing demand in the mid-American landscape among horsemen willing to travel. Kentucky-based Niall O'Callaghan, for instance, has swooped into Lone Star on several occasions, winning the 2002 Long Star Derby with Wiseman's Ferry and taking a second and a third with Nite Dreamer in runnings of the Lone Star Park Handicap.

"It's given us in the Midwest another excellent place to race," O'Callaghan said. "Before Lone Star came along, it was basically Kentucky and Chicago. Now, along with Prairie Meadows and Mountaineer, owners and trainers have three relatively new places to go with their stakes horses, all appearing in the last seven or eight years."

This year, with the help of travel agents, the auto club, or GPS guidance systems, the most devout pilgrims of the racing world will need to find their way to Lone Star Park.

The regular meet opens Thursday and runs until July 11. Nothing new about that. Come October, though, Lone Star will reconvene for a one-month season that will feature the 21st rendition of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, to be run on ground that, eight years ago, was barely a construction site.

That, folks, is Texas fast and longhorn strong. Lone Star management has had their name in the Breeders' Cup hopper for a few years now, and they got the nod for 2005. But when Churchill Downs had to bow out this year because of its elaborate renovation project, Lone Star stepped up with a whoop and a "no problemo!" Name the date.

It is Oct. 30, in fact, which leaves the rest of the racing world a little more than six months to bone up on all things Texas. Don't bother with a trip to the theater for "The Alamo." Won't really help. Rent "North Dallas Forty," instead, or maybe "Tender Mercies," or just consume a steady TV dose of "King of the Hill," animated Texas at its best.

But mostly, just start reading up, pay attention, and ask around, because a visit to Texas demands more than simply a high tolerance for hot salsa and chili Colorado.

Lone Star itself dipped deep into Texas lore, hoping to create an overnight feel for tradition. That is why there is an Assault Stakes (named for the 1946 Texas-bred winner of the Triple Crown), a Bluebonnet Stakes (named for the state flower), and memorial races named in honor of Carter McGregor (first president of the Texas HBPA), Harold Goodman (owner and breeder of Texas filly legend Two Altazano), Bob Johnson (legislative father of the 1986 Texas parimutuel law), and Allen Bogan (Texas racing historian and journalist).

While not essential, it might also help to know that trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Corey Lanerie have established themselves as Lone Star's all-time leaders. Their records, still young, are already under attack from the likes of Cole Norman and Eddie Martin Jr.

The Texas state fowl is the mockingbird, the state tree is the pecan, the state small mammal is the armadillo, and the state song is "Texas, Our Texas," written in 1929 by William Marsh and Gladys Yoakum Wright of Fort Worth.

Learn it.

Breeders' Cup visitors from abroad might also want to access certain Texas websites, if only to become familiar with local terminology, especially when dealing with such basic concerns as weather, directions, and boot repair.

Pray that Breeders' Cup week does not feature a "blue norther," defined as a blue-black cloud of freezing cold air that tumbles over the warmer atmosphere from the Gulf of Mexico and causes no end of frozen fingertips.

There may or may not be rain with a blue norther. Rain, in Texas, comes in a variety of intensities, the most extreme described as gully-washers or frog-stranglers.

In the end, common sense translates in any language. There is a reason why some sayings are considered both wise and old. In Texas - as in Dublin, London, Long Beach, or Paris - you would be advised to "never slap a man who's chewin' tobacco," "never kick a cow chip on a hot day," and "never ask a man if he's from Texas."

Why? Because "if he is, he'll tell you, and if he isn't, there's no sense in embarrassin' him."