10/24/2003 12:00AM

Amid change, one constant

Churchill Downs
A crane lifts an officials' box in place as part of major renovations that won't be complete until 2005.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Change abounds at Churchill Downs these days. The patchworked pattern of a 130-year-old frontside finally is yielding to modernity, and the ongoing construction has left the grounds in a state of transition that by 2005 will result in a spanking-new state-of-the-art facility.

Indeed, with the demolition that began hours after the track ended its spring meet July 6 already complete, the Churchill landscape is now dominated by the sights, sounds, and inconveniences of major reconstruction.

Fortunately for Churchill and its loyal fan base, one thing will not change at the 27-day fall meet that begins Sunday in the shadows of the track's massive renovation project: the quality of racing.

"It should be perfectly comparable to any that's been run here in the past," said Churchill racing secretary Doug Bredar.

And that's a good thing. With a projected daily purse average of $418,000, Churchill once again has the means to entice what horseplayers frequently say they appreciate most: full and competitive fields of high-quality horses.

"We averaged 9.4 horses per field in the spring," said Bredar, who long has been a proponent of field size driving handle. "We're hoping to make it 9.5 this fall. The trend of filling entries should continue."

Including Dale Romans, whose stable dominated the spring meet, a familiar cast of characters is back with plenty of ammunition this fall. Among them are Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, Tom Amoss, Carl Nafzger, and "a lot of the same people who've been here for years," said Bredar.

The stakes program starts Sunday with the $150,000 Ack Ack Handicap and culminates Thanksgiving weekend with four of the best stakes of the meet: the $300,000 Falls City on Nov. 27; the $500,000 Clark on Nov. 28; and the $200,000 Golden Rod and $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club on closing day, Nov. 29.

Bredar said that because closing weekend comes five weeks after the Breeders' Cup, Churchill racing officials are hoping to reap a bumper crop of leftovers. "The timing is perfect," he said. "Hopefully our races will be perfect for some horses coming out of the Breeders' Cup. There are quite a few that have only run two, three, or four times since a layoff, and they might not be ready to pack it in for the year."

The 11th running of the Ack Ack, a Grade 3 race at 7 1/2 furlongs, drew seven older horses, most of them accomplished but none of them a standout. Apt to Be, an earner of more than $350,000, will carry high weight of 120 pounds. Chicago-based trainer Chris Block will be in to saddle Apt to Be for owner Richard Duchossois.

Two of the strongest challengers are based at Churchill. Pass Rush, a classy Indiana-bred who hasn't raced since the Churchill spring meet, "has been training very well the last few weeks," said trainer Pat Byrne. Twilight Road, a 6-year-old gelding owned by Donamire Farm, was good enough to win the 2002 Ack Ack and also comes into this running in good order for trainer Paul McGee.

Pat Day, who was supplanted from his customary spot atop the Churchill jockey standings by Cornelio Velasquez in the spring, will be back from the Breeders' Cup to ride on opening day. Day, who has won an astounding 33 Churchill riding titles, has the mount on Pass Rush.

The rest of the field for the Ack Ack, which is carded as the ninth of 10 races, is Woodmoon, Cat Tracker, Dubai Sheikh, and Cappuchino. The Sunday program also includes four allowances (races 4, 6, 7, and 8) and the first leg of the Trails End Championships for starter-allowance marathoners (race 2).

After Sunday, Churchill goes dark for two days before racing resumes Wednesday. Unlike at past fall meets, when racing was conducted six days a week, Churchill will be open on two Tuesdays only: Nov. 4 (Election Day) and Nov. 11 (Veterans' Day).