07/24/2005 11:00PM

Track's first-ever turf course opens up new possibilities

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When the Sonoma County Fair opens Wednesday, it will have something that no other fair track in California has ever had: a turf course.

Racing secretary Greg Brent has carded a pair of 1 1/16-mile races on the course for opening day, and he said he hopes to run two turf races a day throughout the 12-day meet. Later in the meet, Brent plans to offer a pair of five-furlong sprints.

The turf course was the brainchild of retired fair manager Jim Moore, who will serve as racing director this year. The course, a mixture of tall fescue and bluegrass, was planted last fall and has had plenty of time to develop a sturdy root system.

When trainer Steve Specht worked a horse over the course to test it in mid-June, he said he was pleased that no divots were dug up by the horse's hooves.

The course is configured to run races at five furlongs, one mile, 1 1/16 miles, and 1 3/8 miles.

"It's a real plus," Brent said. "It allows us to attract horses we otherwise wouldn't."

The presence of the new turf course convinced Southern California-based trainer Paula Capestro to send up six horses, including A to the Z, who will be pointed to the $100,000 Joseph T. Grace, to be run on the turf Aug. 6.

"We're looking forward to giving it a go," she said. "I'm really excited because a grass course gives you so many more options."

Brent said grass races tend to fill more easily than dirt races and pointed to a side benefit of possibly having more horses available for fewer dirt races.

The first stakes on the turf is the $50,000 Luther Burbank for fillies and mares Saturday. Before the race, the fair plans to distribute champagne glasses to fans and hold a mass toast to salute the course.

In addition to the Luther Burbank and Joseph Grace, two other Thoroughbred stakes will be run, both on the main track: the six-furlong Ernest Finley and the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes for 2-year-olds. All stakes will have a minimum purse of $50,000.

Two traditional stakes, the James Lytle for 3-year-olds and Elie Destruel for fillies and mares, will not be conducted this year, in part because of an inability to guarantee a $50,000 purse for them and in part because the races have been difficult to fill in recent years.

At a glance:

* RACING SCHEDULE: 12 days; wednesday through Aug. 8 (dark Aug. 2)

* POST TIME: 12:45 p.m. Pacific

* HIGHLIGHTS: $50,000 Luther Burbank Handicap, July 30; $50,000 Ernest Finley Handicap, July 31 ; $100,000 Joseph T. Grace Handicap, Aug. 6; $50,000 Cavonnier Juvenile, Aug. 7

* ADMISSIONS: $7 (racing included in fair admission); reserved seating, $3

* PARKING: General, $5, preferred, $8

* LOCATION: 1350 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa, Calif.

* PHONE: (707) 545-4200

* INTERNET: www.sonomacountyfair.com