03/31/2004 12:00AM

Welcome mat out for half-milers

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CALGARY, Alberta - The Canadian Thoroughbred racing season begins Friday evening at Stampede Park, with nine half-mile races on the opening card of a 47-day meet.

Tantoo, an 8-year-old with a fondness for this five-furlong oval, figures to be the heavy favorite against four other fillies and mares in the featured eighth race, for $28,000 claimers.

An Alberta-bred daughter of Well Decorated, Tantoo breaks from the outside under Alberta's leading rider in 2003, Quincy Welch, and could be long gone in a field lacking serious early speed. Her only serious competition for the lead should come from Crossing, a 4-year-old who flashed speed last year but may find her older rival a handful here.

Racing secretary Barry McGrath has written four-furlong sprints for the first two weeks, with next Wednesday being a dark day. Racing will conducted on a four-day per week basis after that with 6 p.m. Mountain post times on Wednesday and Friday, and 1 p.m. starts on Saturday and Sunday. McGrath was flooded with stall applications this winter and all 1,180 stalls are full to begin the meet.

The stakes schedule starts May 8 with the 27th running of the Stampede Park Sprint Championship and concludes on closing day with the eighth running of the Penny Ridge on June 20.

The Sprint is expected to entice trainer Greg Tracy and 2003 Alberta Derby winner Taiaslew from their winter headquarters at Turf Paradise, where Taiaslew bested the graded stakes winner Boston Common in a six-furlong stakes race last month and subsequently placed third in the $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup.

The 12 stakes races here offer a total of $550,000 in purse money. There are 10 stakes worth $40,000 apiece, plus the $50,000 Herald Gold Plate on June 13, and the $100,000 Alberta Derby on June 19.

The first stakes for fillies and mares is the 19th running of the M.R. Jenkins Memorial on May 9 at six furlongs. Raylene, who defeated Taiaslew in last August's Canadian Derby at Northlands Park, has trained sharply for trainer Rod Haynes and will be the one to beat in the Jenkins.

Raylene, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Tabasco Cat who was a bargain $10,000 yearling purchase at the Keeneland fall sale, swept the 3-year-old filly stakes at this meet last spring. She won six stakes on the season and earned $339,684.

Her campaign, including a victory over Dancewithavixen, British Columbia's top filly, in the B.C. Oaks at Hastings last September, which earned her consideration in Sovereign Award balloting.

At a glance: Stampede

RACING SCHEDULE: 47 days; Friday through June 20; racing Friday through Sunday; Wednesdays beginning April 14; Monday, May 24

Highlights: $50,000 Herald Gold Plate, June 13; $100,000 Alberta Derby, June 19

POST TIME: 6 p.m. Mountain Time Wednesdays and Fridays; 1 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays, Monday

ADMISSIONS: Free

PARKING: $7

LOCATION: 2300 Stampede Trail S.E., Calgary, Alberta

PHONE:(403) 261-0214; scratches and results (403) 974-7223

INTERNET: www.stampede-park.com