06/19/2002 12:00AM

Turf racing, big fields greet new meet


If you like turf racing and big fields, then you should love Colonial Downs.

The short-season track in Virginia, located midway between Richmond and Williamsburg, begins its sixth season Friday with a nine-race card typical of what it plans to offer. All nine races are on the 180-foot wide Secretariat Turf Course, the widest in the nation.

Last year, the first in which Colonial raced during the summer instead of fall, the track conducted 205 grass races in five weeks, representing 81 percent of its total live races. That trend is expected to continue for this year's 26-day meet that runs through July 23.

Because of the size of the turf course and its popularity with horsemen, Colonial has expanded the maximum number of starters per race from 12 to 14. The opening day card, highlighted by an optional claiming race at 1 1/8 miles with a $34,000 purse, attracted 103 horses, which averages out to slightly more than 11 starters per race.

Of the 14 stakes on the schedule, only one will be held over the 1 1/4-mile dirt track.

The meet's highlight is Saturday, July 13, with three stakes, including the $500,000 Virginia Derby, a 1 1/4-mile turf race for 3-year-olds. Among the early nominees is Belmont Stakes runner-up Medaglia d'Oro.

The undercard stakes on Virginia Derby Day are the Grade 3, $150,000 All Along Breeders' Cup for fillies and mares, and the $50,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial, a Grade 2 steeplechase at 2 1/4 miles.

Mario Pino will launch his bid for a fourth straight Colonial riding title with eight mounts on Friday's card. The track will honor him with two giveaways on opening weekend - a bobble-head doll to the first 5,000 paid admissions Saturday and, on Sunday, a commemorative poster of Pino's six-win day at Colonial last July 9.

A. Ferris Allen heads the list of familiar trainers stabled at Colonial. Allen has won or shared the track's training title each of its previous five seasons. The only year Allen wasn't alone at the top was 1998, when he was co-leading trainer with Hamilton Smith. Smith, a top-five trainer at the track for five years, has booked a large group of stalls for this meet.