07/24/2006 12:00AM

Turf racing aids field size

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The two most festive weeks of the northern California fair circuit get under way Wednesday when the Sonoma County Fair begins its 12-day meeting in Santa Rosa.

Located close enough to Golden Gate Fields, Pleasanton, and Bay Meadows to attract horses stabled at those tracks, the Sonoma County Fair is also located just far enough from the mainstream racing action to make it an event and a destination stop in northern California racing.

"Santa Rosa's got enthusiastic crowds," racing secretary Greg Brent said. "You get the true feeling of racing there."

The Sonoma fair hosted the first $100,000 Thoroughbred stakes on the summer circuit, the Joseph T. Grace Handicap, and last year it unveiled the first turf course at any of California's fairs. The Grace Handicap will be held on the turf this year on Aug. 5.

Grass racing gives Brent extra options to fill cards and enhance field size.

"The turf races went really well last year," he said.

Fair manager Corey Oakley said the course held up well during the winter and has been thriving during the spring and summer.

"It's done nothing but get better," Oakley said. "We've gotten some positive feedback, and I think more horses are staying here because of the turf racing. We've written a handful of more races for the turf this year."

Three turf races are scheduled for opening day with full fields of 10 in two of them and an overflow of 14 entrants in the third.

"Hopefully, we won't have short fields," Brent said.

But he is concerned about the population of both Thoroughbreds and non-Thoroughbreds.

There are no longer enough Appaloosas to card a race for them, and Quarter Horse and Arabian races are sometimes tough to fill. The mules are hurt by the limited number of jockeys willing to ride them.

Brent said the fair had considered adding a pair of stakes, but instead beefed up the overnight purse structure to make it the highest on the fair circuit.

Nine stakes races are scheduled: four for Thoroughbreds and five for non-Thoroughbreds, including a mule stakes on opening day that Oakley hoped would draw the two racing clones. One of the clones, Idaho Star, is sidelined, but Idaho Gem will run.

Oakley and Brent are disturbed by decreases in handle at the fairs this year. Oakley has switched Friday's starting post from 12:45 to 2:15 p.m. to take advantage of Del Mar's 4 p.m. post on Fridays. In addition, he is trying to attract fans with giveaways after last year's popular "Toast to the Turf" that offered free plots of grass from the turf course to fans.

This year's giveaways will be coolers, hats, and posters on different days.

At a glance:

* RACING SCHEDULE: 12 days; Wednesday through Aug. 7; dark Aug. 1

* POST TIME: 12:45 p.m.; 2:15 p.m. Fridays

* HIGHLIGHTS: $50,000 Luther Burbank Handicap, July 29; $50,000 Ernest Finley Handicap, July 30; $100,000 Joseph T. Grace Handicap,

Aug. 5; $50,000 Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes, Aug. 6

* ADMISSIONS: Fair admission, $7; reserved seats, $3

* PARKING: preferred, $8; general, $5

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

* PHONE: (707) 545-4200

* INTERNET: www.sonomacountyfair.com