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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Two years after Churchill Downs unveiled a $121 million renovation that provided the most sweeping physical changes in track history, major changes are still occurring. And as the 52-day spring meet gets under way Saturday with an 11-race program, the most notable change is one that will affect many people who don't even have to set foot in the sparkling new facility.
Churchill announced in early March that it had bought a 50-percent interest in Horse Racing Television (HRTV) and was in the process of dissolving its association with its longtime cable-television carrier, Television Games Network (TVG), in a move that promises to bring sweeping change for home viewers and account-wagering horseplayers. As a result, Churchill's races this meet will be shown on HRTV.
Churchill officials said they hoped to announce as early as Thursday night that its newly formed online wagering system, twinspires.com, would be operational in time for opening day. In any event, two other account-wagering companies, AmericaTab and Xpress Bet, also will be taking bets on Churchill races.
Churchill track president Steve Sexton was in the stable area Thursday morning, conducting interviews with national media while later expressing wonderment at how swiftly things can change.
"We are very excited about everything that's going on here," said Sexton. "We are hoping our new account-wagering system opens up new markets, which eventually would allow us to offer larger purses and improve our product. That's one of the major changes that really has us excited about the future here."
Not everything changes, though, as many of the same horsemen who have known prior success at Churchill once again will be highly prominent during a meet that lasts through July 8. Among the top jockeys who will ride here past the May 5 Kentucky Derby are Julien Leparoux, Rafael Bejarano, Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, and Calvin Borel. Leading trainer honors could come down to those with the biggest stables, namely, Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, and Dale Romans.
Two riders misjudge finish line
A bizarre finish to the third race Thursday at Keeneland will result in jockeys Elvis Trujillo and Kent Desormeaux seeing the stewards, who will determine whether they will be suspended for their actions.
Trujillo, riding Lear's Princess, stood up and stopped riding about 40 yards before the finish line, believing the race was over. Desormeaux, aboard Ms. Sabbatical, then stood up in reaction to Trujillo. Lear's Princess won the seven-furlong maiden race by a nose.
"Mr. Trujillo had never ridden here before, and he thought when he passed the mirror at the sixteenth pole he had passed the finish line, which of course was wrong," said chief steward John Veitch. "We talked to Kent, and he said he thought he had screwed up and misjudged where the finish was, and he was just reacting to the other rider."
A small percentage of races at Keeneland begin and end at what otherwise is the sixteenth pole, and therefore a photo-finish mirror is located there, lending credence to Trujillo's explanation. Nonetheless, Veitch said the stewards' stand was inundated with irate calls from horseplayers about two jockeys coming to the real finish wire in gallop-out mode. He said both jockeys were scheduled to meet with the stewards Friday morning for further discussion before any action is taken.
Later Thursday, Trujillo easily won the seventh race at 1 1/16 miles, and apparently just to make sure, he rode out his mount, Saratoga Saint, far past the wire, almost to the regular finish line.
Desormeaux apologized to the crowd on in-house television monitors after upsetting the Ben Ali Stakes with Jade's Revenge.
Smaller proves better for McPeek
Bold Start will be well backed in Saturday's Derby Trial because of his accomplishments, which include a runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Hutcheson and a third in the Grade 2 Illinois Derby. But the recent success of trainer Ken McPeek will further contribute to him starting as one of the favorites.
McPeek has been one of the hottest trainers in Kentucky this spring, compiling a 30-7-1-7 record at Keeneland through Wednesday, which placed him third in the standings behind Patrick Biancone and Todd Pletcher.
The reason for his successful Keeneland meet is simple - "good solid horses and good solid people," he said.
Since returning last year from a hiatus from training, he has consolidated his training operation, focusing on training fewer horses and placing an emphasis of winning races at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Unlike the past, when he had up to 160 horses in training, he is down to appropriately 50, all of which are currently based in Kentucky.
He also has some quick runners, such as Bold Start, who was beaten just three lengths by Kentucky Derby hopeful Cowtown Cat in the 1o1/8-mile Illinois Derby.
McPeek expects his barn's momentum to continue into the Churchill meet. "We are only going to get stronger," he said.
Races still available on local cable
Louisville-area racing fans accustomed to watching racing from Churchill Downs on the local cable provider, Insight Communications, will again be able to do so.
Insight will make HRTV available to its Classic-service customers in Louisville and southern Indiana on Channel 75. TVG remains on channel 57.
After the spring meet, Insight is expected to require cable customers in the Louisville area to purchase its more expensive Digital Choice Service to view HRTV.
For satellite customers, Dish Network but not DirecTV will carry HRTV.
* All-sources handle at the Keeneland meet surpassed $147 million Thursday to set an all-time track record with one day remaining in the 15-day spring meeting. Through Thursday, $147,099,640 had been wagered on Keeneland's races.
The previous record was the $143,479,802 bet during last year's 15-day spring meeting.
* Beginning Saturday and continuing throughout Derby week, the Klein Family Learning Center on the Churchill Downs backstretch will operate a gift shop, with proceeds benefiting the Center. The Klein Family Learning Center provides educational programs for backstretch workers, such as language development classes. It is located on the backstretch in the old racing offices across from the clocker's stand. - additional reporting by Byron King