07/20/2003 11:00PM

Wining and dining - and picking winners

Email

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Wednesday is one of the top days on the year's racing calendar.

Saratoga opens. Del Mar opens. And Santa Rosa opens.

It is not a stretch to call Santa Rosa the Del Mar or Saratoga of northern California. Like the other two tracks, it is located just far enough from the mainstream of daily racing to be special.

With Sonoma County wineries, golf courses, and the Pacific Ocean in close proximity, it serves as a getaway of sorts for fans, owners, and even trainers. There are also numerous quality restaurants nearby for dining.

The fair advertises itself as "Wine Country racing," and this year, for the first time, it will actually have daily wine tastings from 3 to 7 p.m. at Jungle Jim's Wine Bar in the Showcase Cafe adjacent to the track.

Handle for the Santa Rosa meet routinely tops $3 million, averaging $3,062,611 last year and $3,117,709 in 2001.

The grandstand is packed daily. Attendance last year averaged 5,330 a day.

The track offers the daily win-place-show drawing - based on the results of the eighth race each day - that is a staple of the northern California fair circuit. The track also will give 3,000 Seabiscuit bobbleheads to seat holders on the opening-day card, and Black Ruby bobbleheads to the first 2,000 entrants in the win-place-show drawing on Aug. 4.

A day at the races also includes the daily racing seminar offered at the Miller Park Stage at 10:30 a.m. with Danny Holmes and track announcer Vic Stauffer. Attendance at the seminar often tops 400 people on weekends.

Although only a two-week meeting, Santa Rosa is where many of northern California's best runners have competed.

Casual Lies, the 1992 Kentucky Derby runner-up, won his debut here as a 2-year-old. Cavonnier, bred by the late Robert Walter and his wife, Barbara, whose ranch is 20 minutes from the track, also won his maiden at Santa Rosa in 1995 before winning the Santa Anita Derby the next year and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.

The day Cavonnier won his maiden, stablemate Argonnier won the Redwood Empire Stakes, a race that is being renamed the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes this year in honor of Robert Walter, who died this year.

Santa Rosa is the home of the Joseph T. Grace Handicap, the first $100,000 Thoroughbred stakes race on the fair circuit, which will be run Aug. 2 this year. Six Thoroughbred stakes are run, as well as stakes races for each of the four emerging breeds - Quarter Horses, Arabians, mules, and Appaloosas. The Cal-Western Appaloosa Derby at one time was the only $100,000 stakes race offered on the fair circuit, but the purse is only $10,000-added now.

At a glance: Santa Rosa

o RACING SCHEDULE: July 23-Aug. 4 (dark July 29)

o POST TIME: 12:45 p.m.

o FAIR/RACE ADMISSIONS: General, $2; Clubhouse $5.

o PARKING: $4

o ADDRESS: 1350 Bennett Valley Rd.

o KEY STAKES: July 27 - Ernest Finley Handicap (3 YO & Up, 6 furlongs) $50,000; Aug. 3 - Joseph T. Grace Handicap (3 YO & Up, 1 1/16 miles) $100,000

o PHONE: (707) 545-4200

o INTERNET: www.sonomacountyfair.com