10/30/2002 12:00AM

Track eager to make impression with Challenge

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Sam Houston Race Park hopes to draw a crowd of more than 15,000 to the inaugural NTRA Great State Challenge on Dec. 7, and is working diligently to make the kind of improvements needed to comfortably host patrons during the six-race program, which highlights the 80-day meet that opens Friday.

"I think the first objective we have is to set the standard for years to come," said Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston in Houston, Texas.

Bork said Sam Houston will open its infield for the Great State Challenge. There will be a large-screen television there for patrons, as well as tents, food and beverages, and wagering facilities. Around the plant, thousands of temporary seats will be set up, while the track's simulcast pavilion will be converted into a restaurant just for the Challenge.

Sam Houston was chosen to host the event last year. "A major part of our presentation was that Houston is still a new, undeveloped racing area. It's a great opportunity" to promote the sport, said Bork. "The city and chamber of commerce are all behind it."

Bork said Houston mayor Lee Brown will have a reception at the track for the Great State Challenge.

The program figures to give Sam Houston one of its largest draws for a racing-only event. The track, which annually averages 10,000 to 12,000 patrons for its popular Texas Champions Day, recorded its highest attendance in July, when 24,124 people turned out for a fireworks program and live racing for Quarter Horses.

New faces include Offolter, Engel

Trainer Joe Offolter, who is in a neck-and-neck battle for the Remington Park title with Donnie Von Hemel, plans to make his base at Sam Houston for the first time this meet. His 32-horse stable will settle in sometime in December, after his barn is used to house horses shipping for the Great State Challenge.

Also new to the meet will be Roger Engel, who is one of the highest win percentage trainers at Remington. He too will arrive late, with the Remington meet set to run into December.

Offolter's current stable star is Strawbailey, who has won two filly and mare turf stakes in her last two starts. "We're giving her a little break, and plan to bring her back at Sam Houston in February," said Offolter. The goal is the $50,000 Jersey Lilly Stakes on Feb. 15.

Engel's top runner is Medium Rare, who last Saturday won the $50,000 Classics Day Sprint at Remington Park. The trainer plans to have a 16-horse stable at Sam Houston.

Lukas talks horseflesh

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, fresh off his win with Orientate in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last Saturday, spoke to a crowd of about 700 on Tuesday night in Sulphur Springs, Texas, located four hours from Sam Houston.

Lukas was the featured guest during a free seminar designed to bring Thoroughbred breeding and racing operations to the area. Also at the seminar was Louisiana Downs's leading rider, Gerard Melancon.

Lukas spoke about the selection of yearlings at market, and among the subjects he inspected for the crowd was Repository.

Star Engagement vs. Smoke Buster

Star Engagement, third last out to eventual Grade 3 winner French Riviera, and Smoke Buster, who won the $147,000 Texas Thoroughbred Association Sales Futurity last year, appear to be the major players in the opening-night feature at Sam Houston on Friday.

A conditioned allowance, the 5 1/2-furlong race for fillies and mares is worth $15,500.

Star Engagement ran an even third last out to French Riviera, who returned in her next start to win the $125,000 Thoroughbred Club of America at Keeneland.

Beaten just three lengths in that allowance race, Star Engagement will be ridden by Buck Harris.

Casey Lambert has the mount on Smoke Buster, who was fourth in her last start to stakes winner Fuse It.

* Wayne Opperman, a retired trainer and the father of Texas-based trainer Beach Opperman, died Oct. 25 at his home in Keller, Texas. He was 74. Opperman helped found the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent Association, and also served as a director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. Among the best horses he trained were stakes winners Flight History and King Grail.

Opperman's survivors include his wife, Rose; his son, Beach; daughters Wanda Stirling and Sheryl Rehill; two grandaughters; and his best friend, former trainer William Griffith.