01/08/2004 1:00AM

Winter schedule heats up


GROVE CITY, Ohio - Beulah Park is preparing for a head-to-head battle against Mother Nature when Ohio's oldest Thoroughbred track begins its 71-day winter-spring meeting on Saturday.

In a major change, Beulah's management has front-loaded its dates by going to a five-day, Friday-through-Tuesday schedule until mid-March. The track will then run four days a week for about three weeks and then switch to three days a week for the final three weeks of the meeting, which ends Kentucky Derby Day, May 1. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern throughout the meeting.

In past years, Beulah has run three or four days a week in January and February before going to five days a week in March and April.

"Thistle, River, and Indiana Downs are all starting within a week of each other in April and we compete with all three tracks for horses," said Beulah general manager Mike Weiss. "It just didn't make since trying to run five days per week in April anymore."

Instead the track will battle the elements in trying to race five days per week during the heart of winter in central Ohio.

"We're taking a big gamble," said Weiss, referring to the new schedule. "There isn't much product out there during the winter months, particularly on Mondays and Tuesdays, and we hope to fill the void with programs of full fields and good racing."

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Beulah's simulcast signal will be taken by New York City OTB parlors and Las Vegas casinos as well as tracks throughout the country. Track officials hope this will produce a major boost in total handle.

If Saturday's entries are any indication full fields should be the norm as 92 horses were scheduled to run on an eight-race program.

The barn area is nearly filled to capacity, according to racing secretary Ed Vomacka. He doesn't anticipate any problems at the entry box.

"As long as we can keep the track open for training and don't have too many cancellations we shouldn't have any problem filling," Vomacka said.

Beulah closed its track for training for two weeks following the conclusion of the fall meeting on Dec. 22. The racing surface was stripped down to the base before a full five inches of new sand was spread around the one-mile oval. The cost of the resurfacing project exceeded $100,000, according to Jim McKinney, Beulah's finance manager.

Ivan Gonzalez and Jake Radosevich, who led the jockey and trainer standings at last year's winter-spring meeting, are back to defend their titles.

Marco Camaque, who easily won the riding title at the fall meeting, should compete for leading jockey. Rodney Faulkner, the fall meet's leading trainer, has shipped the bulk of his stable to Penn National and is not expected to have much of a presence here.

In another major change, with the exception of eight days in April when the track will run 7 & 7 programs with River Downs, Beulah will run eight- or nine-race programs this year.

During the past decade the majority of Beulah's days were conducted on the 7 & 7 alternating race format with Thistledown. Thistle's later starting date this year necessitated the change. No decision has been made yet on whether Beulah will reenter the 7 & 7 programs with Thistle during the fall meeting, according to Weiss.

At a glance: Beulah Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 71 days; Saturday through May 1. Racing Friday through Tuesday through March 16 before dropping Tuesdays. Drop Mondays beginning April 12. No racing on Monday, Jan. 19, Monday, Feb. 16 or Easter Sunday, April 11. Special racing Wednesday, Jan. 21 and Wednesday, Feb. 18.

POST TIME: 1:15 p.m. Eastern

ADMISSIONS: $2 general admission, $1 senior citizen admission

PARKING: $1 general parking

LOCATION: 10 miles south of Columbus, accessible off Interstate 71 at exits 97 and 100 and off Interstate 270 at the Grove City exit

SIMULCASTING: Daily through mid-evening

PHONE: (614) 871-9600

INTERNET: www.beulahpark.com