Updated on 09/16/2011 9:33AM

Ack Ack gets things started with style


Racing fans still will recognize the Churchill Downs they have come to know and love, although that won't last much longer.

Churchill opens its fall meet Sunday as a track in transition, one where major construction is dominating the landscape. The

$120 million project, which will not be completed until early 2005, is well underway.

Opening day typifies the kind of racing that will be offered through Nov. 30, with the $100,000 Ack Ack Stakes highlighting a 10-race card that also includes five allowances and the first leg of the popular Trails End series for starter-allowance marathoners.

The Grade 3 Ack Ack, contested at the seldom-run distance of 7 1/2 furlongs, drew a field of nine 3-year-olds and upward. The probable favorites are Binthebest, a late-running horse trained by Carl Nafzger, and Twilight Road, who drew Churchill's all-time leading rider Pat Day.

Binthebest, said Nafzger, "gives us his best kick every time. Six furlongs is too short for him, and at seven, they go too slow for him. But he runs hard, and the long stretch should help him. I think he'll be tough."

Twilight Road, owned by Donamire Farm and trained by Paul McGee, most recently ran second in a swiftly run allowance race at Keeneland. A 5-year-old by Cahill Road, he has been consistently competitive in a number of small stakes and high-end allowance races.

Other contenders in the Ack Ack include Danthebluegrassman, winner of the Matt Winn Stakes in the spring for trainer Bob Baffert; Chindi, a distinctive-looking gray who runs from far behind; Cojet, entered off a sharp allowance win in his comeback race at Keeneland; and Bright Valour, a capable veteran from the Frank Brothers barn. Also entered are Makors Mark, Freon Flier, and Mountain General.

The Ack Ack, named for the 1971 Horse of the Year, is carded as the ninth race and is scheduled to be run at 4:38 p.m. Eastern.

Opening day gets off to an impressive start with a $45,900 allowance race that attracted several stakes-proven horses, including Windward Pawssage, Peekskill, and Shah Jehan.

Some of the later races appear just as strong, including one-mile turf races for 2-year-old fillies

(race 4) and older fillies and mares (race 8).

Unlike most years, the Churchill meet will last five weeks instead of four, the result of a quirk in the calendar; the meet always ends the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which comes as late as possible this year. The weekly schedule consists of six days, although Churchill officials have talked about cutting back to five next fall, partly because another long calendar will extend the meet to five weeks again.

On the backstretch, Steve Asmussen will try to defend the training title he won last year, although the favorite for leading trainer probably is Dale Romans, who tied for top honors with Tom Amoss at the spring meet.

Among owners, Ken and Sarah Ramsey will try to extend their own track record for consecutive titles; the Ramseys have won or tied for leading owner at each of the last five Churchill meets.

The jockey colony, as always, will be led by Day, who has won an incredible 32 Churchill riding titles, including 17 in the fall. Day was easily the leading jockey in the spring, and if opening day is any indication - besides Twilight Road, he is named on five horses - he will ride major contenders on a daily basis.

The final weekend of the meet typically presents the best stretch of racing.

The richest race of the meet, the $400,000 Clark Handicap, is set for Nov. 29, sandwiched between the Nov. 28 Falls City Handicap and the closing-day tandem of the Golden Rod and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. In all, 11 stakes will be run at the meet, all but one of them graded.

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