04/18/2006 11:00PM

After long recovery, Radke's back

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Reed Palmer Photography
Slewicide Cruise wins the Inaugural Handicap at Portland in October 2004, a few months before a suspensory injury put him on the sidelines for nearly a year.

AUBURN, Wash. - This could be the Year of the Comeback at Emerald Downs.

Two of the top riders and three of the best horses on the grounds will be coming back from serious injuries, and, with luck, any or all could have a big impact on the 91-day meeting, which gets under way on Friday.

Headlining the returnees is jockey Kevin Radke, who dominated the standings here in 2002 and 2003 and dethroned perennial northern California champ Russell Baze at Golden Gate in 2004. Just a week after that Golden Gate stand ended, on April 14, 2004, Radke fractured his wrist and broke his nose in a spill at Bay Meadows. The bones mended nicely, but ligament damage to his wrist proved resistant to treatment, and Radke's riding career was in doubt for many frustrating months.

"My last surgery was over a year ago and the doctor said it would take three months to heal, but it obviously took a lot longer than that," said Radke. "I'm finally back to 100 percent, though, and it feels great. I won't be easing back into riding. I'll be going full bore from the opening bell. I've probably gotten on 500 to 600 horses this spring, so I'm totally fit and I'm anxious to get going. I'm looking forward to a great meet."

Also returning from a wrist injury is Nate Chaves, who ranks fifth on the list of all-time Emerald riders with 341 local victories. Chaves broke his wrist without knowing it when he was thrown in the paddock here last June. He returned a week later to ride Sabertooth in the Budweiser-Emerald Handicap, but his wrist was swollen after the race and a second X-ray revealed the break.

Unlike Radke, Chaves experienced no complications. He took extra time off to be strong for this meeting, then returned to gallop and work horses here when the track opened for training in February. Agent Steve Peery said Chaves has worked harder than ever in the mornings, and the rider said he is feeling the benefits of his rigorous schedule.

"This is the best I've ever felt," he said. "I'm ready to bounce."

Injured stars to meet in Seattle 'Cap

Among the returning handicap stars, Demon Warlock and Slewicide Cruise are a matched set. Demon Warlock was named horse of the meeting here in 2004, then injured a suspensory ligament while winning the Portland Meadows Mile on April 9, 2005. Slewicide Cruise was the sprint champion at Emerald's 2004 meeting, then suffered the same suspensory injury as Demon Warlock in a training accident just a few days after he won the Seattle Handicap here on April 24 of last year.

Both horses were given ample time off to heal from their injuries, but Slewicide Cruise resumed training late last year at Portland Meadows and has already raced. Slewicide Cruise came back in the five-furlong Flashaway Handicap on Portland Meadows Mile Day, April 8. He was beaten a nose by the razor-sharp Forty Durango in a race that was especially hard to evaluate. On the one hand, Slewicide Cruise was barely beaten despite being bumped hard at the start and pushed wide on the turn. On the other, Forty Durango had recently raced for a modest $5,000 tag. Trainer Robbie Baze prefers to put a positive spin on Slewicide Cruise's effort.

"Considering how long he had been away, I thought he ran very well," said Baze. "It looked like he needed the race, and I think he got a lot out of it. He came out of the race perfectly, too, and that was a big relief. The vets tell me if he can survive his first couple of races back, I can probably stop worrying. If that's true I'll only have to worry about him for one more race."

That race will likely be the six-furlong Seattle Handicap on April 30, when he will likely meet Demon Warlock. Demon Warlock resumed training here in early February, and he has since logged a full slate of fast workouts for trainer Terry Gillihan.

"Everything has gone smoothly, and his attitude is really good," said Gillihan. "I think he is actually traveling better than he did before he got hurt. We had some ankle chips removed when we knew he was going to be off for a long time, and I think that really helped him. I'm pretty optimistic about his longer term prospects."

Gillihan noted that he would probably have to run Demon Warlock in the Seattle Handicap, as he has no allowance conditions.

"The big problem with that is that he doesn't get a lot out of his works," said the trainer. "Starting him out on that level, I'm afraid he'll need a race or two before he shows his best stuff."

'So far, so good' for Flying Notes

Of the returning horses, Flying Notes has traveled the steepest comeback trail. Flying Notes ran the most impressive race in Emerald Downs history when he won the 2002 Emerald Breeders' Cup Derby by more than 11 lengths in a track-record 1:45.40 for 1 1/8 miles, but he injured a tendon shortly thereafter. He has been in and out of training several times since then and even raced once, finishing third in the 2003 Governor's Handicap, but setbacks have always put him back on the sidelines.

Flying Notes had been out of training for more than a year before trainer Bud Klokstad brought him back to the track again in February, and he has since worked four times.

"It's a case of so far, so good," said Klokstad. "The best news is that he still wants to do it. We've had our hands full slowing him down in his works, and I'm confident that if I can get him back to the races he'll fire for me. It's just a question of whether he can hang together. These tendon injuries are awfully hard to deal with, and if he was an ordinary horse I would have given up on him long ago. He's no ordinary horse, though.

"I hope I can get him back, but right now I'm not pointing him to any race," he said. "Right now I'm just holding my breath."

At a glance: Emerald Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 91 days, April 21 through Oct. 1. Racing three days per week, Friday through Sunday, until June, when Thursdays are added. Special Monday racing on May 29, July 3, and Sept. 4. Tuesday racing on July 4.

POST TIME: 6 p.m. Pacific weekdays. 2 p.m. weekends and holidays and 5 p.m. on July 3.

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 3, $250,000 Longacres Mile, Aug. 20; Washington Cup Day, Sept. 17.

ADMISSIONS: $4 for access to the first five levels of the grandstand, the paddock, and the park. Children 17 and under admitted free. Reserved seating additional.

PARKING: General parking, free; preferred, $5; valet, $8.

LOCATION: Auburn, Wash., 15 miles south of Seattle off Valley Freeway (Route 167).

PHONE: (253) 288-7000; (888) 931-8400.

INTERNET: www.emeralddowns.com