09/29/2011 12:07PM

Turf Paradise kicks off meet with Bienvenidos

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PHOENIX – Racing returns to the desert as Turf Paradise opens its doors for its 2011-12 meet Saturday, with the card highlighted by the traditional opening-day $35,000 Bienvenidos.

The Phoenix track, which commences its 56th meet, runs for 157 days through May 6, 2012. Racing is conducted primarily five days a week, Friday through Tuesday, with first post 12:30 p.m. until Feb. 24 when first post moves to 1 p.m. The meet’s marquee events, the $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup and $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, are slated for Feb. 18 and Jan. 14, respectively. The $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby is scheduled for Feb. 25.

General manager Vince Francia said: “Everything we’re doing this season, from purse and stakes race increases to the racing program, is designed to provide as much money as possible to our participating horsemen.”

Francia cited handle this summer from the in-state OTB sites, which Turf Paradise took over after Yavapai Downs was unable to run its summer meet, for a boost of 10 percent to overnight purses and 26 percent to stakes prize money.

Last year’s leading rider, Ry Eikleberry, will be back to defend his title and again figures to be challenged by the likes of Jake Barton, Anne Von Rosen, Scott Stevens and Lori Keith. Mike Chambers had a huge season last year to win the training title and goes after another crown against the likes of Robertino Diodoro, Miguel Silva, Dan McFarlane and Tracie Aker. Silva won his first owner’s title last season, upending perennial leading-owner candidate Dennis Weir.

With Yavapai Downs unable to run its meet because of financial problems, Arizona horses have had nowhere to run for several months. So handicappers will likely see numerous horses early in the Turf Paradise meet without racing recency.

Saturday’s Bienvenidos, a 6 1/2-furlong event for 3-year-olds and up, drew a field of 11.

Hezamazing, last year’s winner, is back to defend his title for trainer Rick Houghton and the 6-year-old has continued to be a force in the Southwest at tracks such as Albuquerque, Ruidoso and Arapahoe. Southern Californians Yankee Bravo and Patriotic Soldier are in the fray, as is Prairie Meadows winner Gatling Gun. Local hotshots Rule by Force and El Rancho may well have a say, but favoritism could fall to the red-hot Northwest shipper Bonboni.

Despite having finished off the board in his six local starts, all last fall and winter, the 5-year-old Bonboni comes from Hastings seemingly a new horse. Owned by Rick Hunter and trained by Robert Henson, won 5 of 6 there this spring and summer. Even in the lone loss he ran well and finished second. And while the first four of those six starts came vs. claimers, he won a tough optional claimer July 24 and then took the Express Sept. 11.

His 92 Beyer Speed Figure from the Express stacks up very well in the Bienvenidos field, and he worked strongly here Sept. 24.