02/11/2009 12:00AM

Weather helps fill fields for meet opener

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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. Live racing makes its return to Nebraska on Friday as Fonner Park opens for its 56th season with a 35-day meet that runs through Kentucky Derby Day, May 2.

The season is highlighted by the $75,000 Bosselman/Gus Fonner Stakes at 1 1/16 miles for older horses. The meet s showcase event is slated for its 50th running this year on April 25.

Unseasonably warm weather has allowed horses to train regularly, and five of the opening day s nine races sport full fields of 10, the maximum allowed to start in Nebraska. The opening days of the meet are loaded with half-mile sprints around one turn of this five-eighth-mile oval, with the lone six-furlong test on Friday a starter allowance carded as the featured eighth race.

Last year s leading rider, Yuri Yaranga, has chosen to remain at his winter base in Ohio this spring but is expected back later in the year. Beth Butler, the runner-up in the rider standings here a year ago, returns along with regulars Mike Ziegler, Don Frazier, Larren Delorme, and Armando Martinez.

Joining Chris Fackler and Preto Espindola in the apprentice ranks are Eduardo Quijandria, Victorio Camp, and Ashley Dill. Journeyman T.D. Houghton will ride here the first few weekends, and Paul Nolan is expected to be on hand through the season, as will Jose Ranilla, the son of Luis Ranilla, a Nebraska regular.

Leading trainer David Anderson will be on hand with a full barn to defend his title against the remainder of last year s top five: Marv Johnson, Milton Gaede, Jim Compton, and Steve Halle.

Stakes action gets under way on Saturday with the Bold Accent for older fillies and mares. Next weekend Tonight Rainbow is expected to ship in to defend his title in the Grasmick Stakes. Tonight Rainbow has won the Grasmick the past three years and also in 2004.