03/18/2004 12:00AM

Better times coming?

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FLORENCE, Ky. - At least he can joke about it. Turfway Park president Bob Elliston had so tough a winter that even with the track's marquee race set for Saturday and springtime just around the corner, he has a difficult time believing that better times are ahead.

"You know that old saying about a light at the end of tunnel?" he asked. "Right now, I'm concerned that it's just another train coming the other way."

Elliston was front and center when Turfway and Kentucky racing endured a triple whammy this winter: another slew of racing cancellations, another unsuccessful bid for alternative gaming, and the tragic death of jockey Mike Rowland.

Elliston's disappointment seemed least palpable when he talked about the cancellations (nine full programs, six partial), because he believes the new racing surface installed here last summer is superior to what formerly was in place. "Because of the unique geographical position we're in, the bottom line is there's no magic cure," he said. "You just have to manage the track as much as you can to protect the number of days you race."

Turfway had run 442 races at the current meet (through Wednesday) versus 410 at that point last year.

As for yet another failed effort to convince state legislators that Kentucky racetracks are badly in need of slots and other new gaming, Elliston, who served as an official spokesman for the tracks, said: "That continues to be very frustrating because we gave up a lot of ground on a lot of issues. I couldn't understand why the tracks were portrayed in so many reports as being greedy. We were very accommodating. We fully recognize that compromise is necessary, regardless of the issues. That's just the way business is done in Frankfort.

"The main source of my frustration is that I see the hope and opportunity that it holds. You look at Turfway and what could happen here. We could be running for $500,000 a day, 110 days a year. It also would stabilize things from a breeding perspective. With slots happening in New York and potentially in California, their programs could become so attractive that Kentucky breeders not only might start sending their best mares out, but their stallions, too."

Elliston said easily the biggest downer of the winter came Feb. 4, when Rowland suffered a fatal head injury in a spill.

"That's the first time it's ever happened at Turfway Park," he said. "We take all the steps we can in this industry to preserve as much safety as possible, but that doesn't change how dangerous the sport really is.

"The ray of sunshine in the Rowland ordeal was how people really came together. We've raised about $100,000 for the Rowland family, and that's money contributed by people from all walks of life. People really came together like family, and I've found it heartwarming to work in a place and an industry that takes care of their own like they do. A whole range of emotions goes with a situation like that."

Hippocrates: A Hanuman Highway?

Kentucky racing fans may remember Kathy Walsh from several years ago, when the veteran trainer brought Hanuman Highway to the 1998 Kentucky Derby off an upset win in the Arkansas Derby. Hanuman Highway wound up seventh behind the victorious Real Quiet that year.

Walsh is taking another peek down the Derby trail, with Hippocrates, a late-running colt who gets a major test Saturday in the Lane's End. Hippocrates won a maiden race by four lengths at Santa Anita in his last start after Walsh took blinkers off the Hennessy colt.

"He's been slow to mature," said Walsh. "We're just trying to figure out where we stand with him, and the timing of this race worked out well."

Walsh is seeking to become the second consecutive female trainer, and third overall, to win the Lane's End. Dianne Carpenter won the 1988 running with 21-1 shot Kingpost, and Jennifer Pedersen won last year with 14-1 shot New York Hero.

No Lane's End for Day

Conspicuous by his absence Saturday will be Pat Day, the Hall of Fame jockey who has won the Lane's End a record five times. Day, who will ride Saturday at Gulfstream Park, will miss the Lane's End for the first time since 1997.

It has been nearly 20 years since Day won his first Lane's End, aboard At the Threshold on April 1, 1984.

Name remains the same

After several years of being known as something else (Jim Beam, Galleryfurniture.com, Spiral), the Lane's End Stakes appears to have achieved stability in terms of its name.

This is the last of three years in the original sponsorship contract between Lane's End and Turfway, but Elliston said he is supremely confident that "the partnership will continue for many years to come. I think I speak for all of us when I say we've had a great experience with it."

Lane's End is the famed Versailles, Ky., breeding farm owned by Will Farish, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Farish is the former chairman of the board at Churchill Downs but also has close ties to Keeneland, which manages and co-owns Turfway with subsidiaries owned by Harrah's and GTECH.

* The annual Kentucky Thoroughbred Media awards will be presented Saturday at the track. Honored for leading their colleagues in victories at Kentucky tracks in 2003 are jockey Rafael Bejarano (255 wins), trainer Bernie Flint (92), and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey (53).