12/02/2014 12:38PM

Big fields on tap as Turfway Park opens meet

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At least the fields are huge.

Turfway Park, having sunk about as low as it can go without being shuttered, opens Thursday evening with the maximum fields of 12 in all but one of nine races. There are no superstars, but horseplayers will have what they often ask for: plenty of wagering options and the promise of pricey mutuels.

“There hasn’t been racing here since the end of March, so naturally, the local horsemen are eager to be in action,” said Tyler Picklesimer, racing secretary at Turfway in northern Kentucky.

Dogged by lagging business for years now, Turfway clearly hosts a different brand of racing than what is offered at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, but it’s winter racing as Kentucky fans have come to know it. Turfway represents the final vestiges of the Polytrack era, having installed its synthetic surface in 2005, and its purpose remains clear: to safely allow horses to train and compete amid sometimes-brutal weather without the constant threat of cancellation.

Racing will be conducted four days a week at the Holiday meet that runs through Dec. 31. Unlike in prior years, there will not be racing the entire week from Christmas to New Year’s Eve, with Dec. 29 and 30 being dark.

The winter-spring meet starts Jan. 1 and runs through March 29, with the longstanding Turfway showcase, the Grade 3, $550,000 Spiral Stakes, set for March 21. Racing during those three months will be held three days a week (Friday-Sunday), with Turfway having reserved a Thursday option with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for January and February.

The first of two stakes at the holiday meet comes Saturday with the $60,000 Holiday Inaugural, a filly-mare sprint for which entries were drawn Tuesday. The purse includes $10,000 from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, a major component for purses at Turfway, particularly in maiden special weight and allowance races.

Albin Jimenez, easily the leading jockey at the winter-spring meet this year, is back, this time with top agent Jimmy McNerney in his corner. McNerney also will be offering the services of Rolando Aragon, a seven-pound apprentice in from the Chicago circuit.

Other jockeys of note include Perry Ouzts and Stewart Elliott, the veteran best known for his work with Smarty Jones. Elliott, who this year moved to a farm in Bowling Green, Ky., said through agent Jose Santos Jr. that he intends to ride the Holiday meet before perhaps moving his tack elsewhere.

Mike Maker, who has his best horses in Florida for the winter, nonetheless figures to be the dominant trainer again at Turfway this winter with 40 stalls.

Although Turfway operates using a bare-bones administrative staff compared with better days, the “Party With the Ponies” promotions featuring live music and $1 specials on Friday nights are very popular with local fans. Live music and drink specials will now be part of Saturday nights this year, too, said Picklesimer.