09/28/2005 12:00AM

Track ushers in its 50th season of racing

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PHOENIX - Turf Paradise opens for its 50th season Friday, and for management here there is as much reason to look ahead as there is to look back.

"We're coming off a successful season and looking forward to celebrating our historic 50th year of racing," said track owner Jerry Simms.

The track, inaugurated by local businessman Walter Cluer in 1956, will run 166 days through May 21, 2006, featuring 46 stakes with a combined purse value of more than $2 million. Live racing will be conducted five days a week, Friday through Tuesday, with first post at 12:25 p.m. Mountain Standard. There will be a number of special Wednesday programs as well. Multiple-track, full-card simulcasting will take place seven days a week, with early-bird wagering beginning at 9 a.m.

The highlight of the meet figures to be Super Saturday on Feb. 11, which features the $75,000 Turf Paradise Handicap, $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby, and $75,000 Arizona Oaks. Celebrating their 50th renewals will be the $40,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile (formerly the Paradise Mile), Jan. 7; the $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, March 18; and the traditional closing-day feature, the $50,000 Hasta La Vista Handicap, May 21. On Dec. 10 and 11, the track plays hosts to a qualifying tournament for both the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championships and the Coast Casinos Finals.

Among the the track's ongoing projects is the development of new off-track betting facilities, particularly as the population continues to grow in the Phoenix area. "The people who live in Gilbert or Surprise or Goodyear can't really be expected to get here to the track, so we'll be opening more OTB sites," Simms said. "As things stand now, we're available in over 1,200 places and seven countries."

Another project is the development of frontage property. On land that once housed a huge parking lot, ground will soon be broken for a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club shopping complex, which will feature a new four-lane entry way into the track, Simms said.

On the wagering front, the track will offer 10-cent superfectas and 50-cent pick fours.

There has been a change at the helm for the new racing season. Eugene Joyce comes in for his first season as general manager. Joyce, 46, comes to Turf Paradise from Lone Star Park, where he served as assistant general manager.

The main track has undergone a face lift. Track superintendent Terry Brown and his crew removed 3,000 tons of old material and added an equal amount of deep-root sand, plus 300 cubic yards of an organic mix of wood shavings and bark.

"The organic material will give the track body and bounce," said Brown.

The main track is a challenge during the rainy winter season because of Arizona's high silt-clay soil content. Brown said the renovation will bring the soil into balance - 92 percent sand and organic matter and 8 percent silt-clay.

Many familiar names are back. Among the trainers returning are Troy Bainum, winner of the title last season, along with Eric Kruljac, Dan McFarlane, Don Mills, Molly Pearson, Keith Bennett, Bart Hone, Jim Hill, Michael Lenzini, Kevin Lewis, Jerry Atkin, Joe Toye, Doug Oliver, Jon Zimmerman, and Justin Evans.

Last season's leading jockey, Wilson Dieguez, is ready to defend his title against Scott Stevens, Jorge Carreno, Leslie Mawing, Miguel Hernandez, Alberto Higuera, Steve Gomez, and Joel Campbell.

At a glance: Turf Paradise

RACING SCHEDULE: 166 days; Friday, Sept. 30 through Sunday, May 21, 2006; racing Fridays through Tuesdays; special Thursday card on Oct. 13, special Wednesday cards on Nov. 9, Dec. 21, Jan. 18, and Feb. 22. Simulcast wagering 7 days a week.

POST TIME: 12:25 p.m. (Friday-Feb. 14, 2006); 1:10 p.m. (weekdays Feb. 17, 2006-May 21, 2005), 1:25 p.m. (weekends Feb. 17, 2006-May 21, 2006); special 9:30 a.m. post time Breeders' Cup Day (Oct. 29); 10:50 a.m. Kentucky Derby Day (May 6, 2006); 1 p.m. Preakness Day (May 20, 2006).

HIGHLIGHTS: $75,000 Turf Paradise BC Handicap, $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby and $75,000 Arizona Oaks, all Feb. 11; $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, Mar.18.

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $2 (free to senior citizens Mondays, Tuesdays); clubhouse, turf club, $4.

SEATING: Grandstand, picnic area, free; clubhouse, $5; player's club, $5; turf club, table $5 per person.

PARKING: General, free; valet, $3.

LOCATION: 18 miles north of downtown Phoenix, on Bell Rd. between 15th/19th Avenues, a mile East of the 1-17.

PHONE: (602) 942-1101

INTERNET: www.turfparadise.com