05/12/2011 12:25PM

Animal Kingdom's Kentucky Derby win a big boost for Turfway Park's synthetic surface


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Officials at Churchill Downs weren’t the only ones smiling in the aftermath of their record-breaking Kentucky Derby last Saturday. The folks at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky also were very proud that their premier race, the Vinery Spiral Racing Stakes, produced the emphatic winner, Animal Kingdom.

Turfway president Bob Elliston had taken exception to some things that had been written and said about whether Derby prep races on synthetic surfaces had become less relevant than preps on dirt, so he was elated to see Animal Kingdom shoot those hypotheses down. Turfway has used Polytrack as its racing surface since September 2005.

Animal Kingdom won the March 26 Vinery Spiral in his final Derby prep, becoming the only Derby winner since Lil E. Tee was the first in 1992 to take the Turfway showcase.

“Animal Kingdom’s effortless win in the Derby confirms what we have believed from the beginning: Good horses, well trained, will take their winning form from Polytrack to dirt,” said Elliston. “This win serves as a reminder that the Spiral remains a major Derby prep.”

While the synthetics boom at North American tracks may have peaked a few years ago, Elliston firmly believes the climate and other circumstances make Turfway’s use of Polytrack to be the proper fit.

“Polytrack has always been the right choice for Turfway,” he said. “In the past 5 1/2 years, more than 51,000 horses have run at Turfway, mostly in the winter. We’ve seen a remarkable improvement in safety and an equally dramatic drop in the number of cancellations. Watching Animal Kingdom also validate what we believe about Polytrack-to-dirt form is tremendously satisfying.”

The 2 3/4-length victory by Animal Kingdom, which came before a record crowd of 164,858, made him the first Derby winner ever to be making his dirt debut.

After near-miss on bar exam, Johnson resumes riding

Jockey Pat Johnson is making a return to the saddle after getting beat the proverbial nose in another endeavor. Johnson will have his first mount in nearly two years when climbing aboard a first-time starter, Pearl Pendant, in the fifth race Saturday at Churchill.

“I missed passing the bar exam by less than a percentage point,” said the aspiring lawyer. “It was a tough beat.”

Johnson, 52, said he intends to take the bar exam again but that he needs to have an income in the meantime. A career winner of 1,565 races, Johnson last rode in June 2009 and had his last win in May 2008, both at Churchill.

Cox regains Midwest Thoroughbred string

Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Brad Cox have rejoined forces following a brief hiatus. Cox trained for Midwest for about seven months last year, mostly at Delaware Park, and now he has 32 horses split between Churchill and the Trackside training center.

“We should be very active here in the coming weeks,” said Cox, noting that he entered five Midwest runners for Sunday.

Midwest Thoroughbreds, owned by Richard and Karen Papiese of Chicago, was the leading owner in 2010 with 310 wins. The majority of their horses are trained by Jamie Ness.

Cox, 31, worked for Dallas Stewart for five years before going out on his own in 2005.

No more live radio from Churchill

For more than 40 years, the feature race of the day at Churchill has been carried on the highest-rated radio station in Louisville, WHAS (840-AM), except on occasions when a programming conflict arose. Veteran sportscaster Paul Rogers has handled the race calls since the legendary Cawood Ledford quit doing them in the mid-1980s.

Unfortunately, in yet another example of how racing is losing ground in the mainstream media, there will no more daily coverage of Churchill. The end of an era owes to a business conflict between Churchill and Clear Channel Corp., the syndicate that owns WHAS.

◗ The same connections that won the Schaefer Handicap on the Preakness undercard last year at Pimlico are going back for more. Al Stall Jr., who trains Apart for Adele Dilschneider, said he intends to run Apart in the 1 1/16-mile Schaefer, which launched Blame to a sensational season that culminated in his epic victory over Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Blame was owned by Dilschneider in partnership with Claiborne Farm.

◗ Archarcharch, retired after sustaining a career-ending condylar fracture in the Derby, returned Thursday to the barn of trainer Jinks Fires after undergoing successful surgery Sunday at the Rood and Riddle equine clinic in Lexington. The colt will remain with Fires for an undetermined length of time.