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Opening Day

Les Bois Park and Derby doings

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Les Bois Park's Opening Day 2004 arrives Saturday, with the Inaugural Handicap as the feature race and the Kentucky Derby available on simulcast. Opening Day post time is 2 p.m. for the first live race. First post on Sunday is also at 2 p.m.

The best of the new at Les Bois Park this year is the renovated track surface. During April, the heavy equipment was on the track—not for Monster Trucks Gone Wild, but to dig, lift and mix in 600 tons of natural, light sand plus gypsum and pine bark to make the track race-safe. Concerns arose in 2003 over the safety of the racing surface. For 2004, horsemen, jockeys and fans look forward to an improved, consistent racing strip.

Another welcome change for 2004 is the Clubhouse redesign. For several years, banks of TVs have blocked racegoers' views of the racetrack. Sometimes, with all of the simulcast races on all of the TVs, you could lose track of dear Les Bois Park's post times. When you couldn't see the racetrack itself, you were in danger of missing the race.

The big, big bank of simulcast TVs was moved from the south end, where it blocked windows, to the black hole at the west side, trading places with the mutuel clerks. The mid-room stanchions were removed completely. The Clubhouse feels like a big room again, and the focus is back toward the track. If it felt like a for-players-only room in Vegas the last time you were there, you might want to try the Clubhouse again this year. Simulcast players can still watch all of their favorite tracks from around the country, but maybe they won't be in our way as much this year.

The summer concerts continue this year, with dates to be announced. I'm not holding my breath for U2 or Barbra Streisand, but last year's Merle Haggard concert filled the stands. Stay tuned.

But concerts begin later. Racing begins now, and when a new season begins, it's tempting to go conservative. To not bring a lot and not bet a lot. After all, nobody wants to lose a shirt on the opening weekend.

Most of the Thoroughbreds haven't run since the previous Les Bois Park season, and they need to get their feet under them after the long winter. To get their competitive juices flowing again, they need to race, and this is where recency comes into play. Horses who have competed within the past 35 days usually have a slight edge over horses who haven't raced since last summer.

Check the top line of the horses' records in the program to see when and where they last raced. If they've raced within the last 35 days, they're probably just in from Portland (PM), Phoenix (TuP), or the Tri-Cities (SuD). You might even see a horse who's "just in" from Emmett (Emt). Unfortunately, a recent race in Emmett gets the crowd's juices going more than the horse's. Unless you're looking at a quarterhorse, discount a recent race in Emmett.

Last season's Opening Day was a prime example of the power of recency. Six of the nine races had horses who had raced within the past 35 days. Representing only 11 of the 52 horses in the six races, the recently raced horses won three races and earned a second-place in a fourth. The three winners paid $8, $5.60 and $17.20 on their $2 win-tickets. Those winners keyed quinellas of $13.80, $38.80, and $23.60 (and the quinella with the second-place runner paid $65.60). A simple $2 win bet on each of the recent horses cost you $22, and you won $30.80. That's coming out ahead in anybody's book, a blind, flat-bet profit, and picking up a quinella or two was icing.

A recent race could prove doubly important this year because of the track renovation. Trainers delayed important workouts while they waited for the new surface. As a result, horses are behind schedule in their training regimens.

As for the Kentucky Derby live from Churchill Downs:This year's Derby picture is fingerpainting-as-modern-art. By all accounts, it's a mess—you'll find plenty of longshots to bet this year, all with decent chances of "winning the roses." An undefeated horse named Smarty Jones is a likely favorite based on his 6-for-6 record, but he was bred in Pennsylvania—a nice state not known for its racehorses. Complicating his chance-for-glory is his jockey, Stewart Elliott, who has never ridden in a Triple Crown race.

Boiseans have only a scant local connection to this 130th Kentucky Derby. Years ago, Jeff Mullins trained horses at Les Bois Park. He now trains Castledale, the 30-to-1 winner of the Santa Anita Derby.

But Gary Stevens, local-jock-gone-big-time, rides in France now. The Derby Draw TV extravaganza airs live, Wednesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. on ESPN. If you catch the show, you'll probably be the first in your neighborhood to know whether or not Stevens can be coerced back to the States for the Derby. If you miss it, check your local sportscast—it's news when Stevens has a horse, and we might get to see if it's news when he doesn't.

Boiseans do well betting on the Derby at Les Bois Park—in no small part because of Stevens. We rode Stevens's rides in the '90s, when his mounts won twice (Silver Charm in '97 and Thunder Gulch in '95) and finished second twice (Casual Lies in '92 and Best Pal in '91). We even cashed tickets in 1996 when he finished 6th with Editor's Note, because the winner, Grindstone, was coupled with Editor's Note. Oh, don't tell me you threw away your ticket ... !

For this year's Derby, so muddled and Stevens-less, I'm going on names, and you too can play the name-game. Is your name David? Go with Master David. Eric? There's a Minister Eric. Like beer? Then Tapit is your horse. If you like tennis, then it's gotta be Wimbledon. If you're a fan of the Bush administration, you might like Imperialism. Do you have friends? How 'bout Friends Lake? On the flipside of that, are you suicidal? Then The Cliff's Edge is for you. I know a guy named Cliff, and that's close enough for me. I think I'll get an exacta box: Cliff with Dave.

Les Bois Park:

Opening Day: Saturday, May 1, 2 p.m.; $2 general admission (add $3 for Patio, $4 for Clubhouse, or $5 for Turf Club upgrades).

Dollar Day: Sunday, May 2, 2 p.m.; $1 general admission and $1 programs.

Western Idaho Fairgrounds at Chinden and Glenwood; Turf Club and Clubhouse reservations at 376-RACE (376-7223).