05/23/2013 2:33PM

Churchill Downs: Atigun, Dark Cove enter Louisville on high note

Tom Keyser
Atigun may have regained some confidence winning an allowance race at Churchill Downs last time out.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two recent winners – one on a class drop, and one on class raise – will go postward as top contenders Saturday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Atigun and Dark Cove are among a well-matched field of nine older horses in the Louisville, a 1 1/2-mile turf race run around three turns. Atigun had been trying – and mostly failing – in high-class company for much of his career before breaking an eight-race losing streak by winning a turf allowance on the May 4 Kentucky Derby Day card, whereas Dark Cove was fresh from a series of upper-level claiming races when capturing the Grade 2 Elkhorn Stakes on the April 26 closing-day card at Keeneland.

“That last race really did our horse some good,” said Ken McPeek, who trains 4-year-old Atigun for the Shortleaf Stable of John Ed Anthony. “We were thrilled with how he ran. He’s proven he can handle the distance before, and now he’s shown how much he likes the grass.”

Dark Cove was part of an almost surreal flurry of winners in recent weeks for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, trainer Mike Maker, and jockey Joel Rosario. Although he was nearly 9-1 in taking the Elkhorn by 4 1/4 lengths, Dark Cove got far more respect from the Churchill racing office when weights were assigned for the Louisville – he will carry high weight of 122 pounds while spotting his rivals four to 10 pounds.

“A performance like last time would do well here,” said Maker.

Rosie Napravnik steps in for Rosario as the rider of Dark Cove, a 6-year-old horse who will break from post 6 as the 5-2 morning-line favorite.

Atigun (115, 7-2) will have Alan Garcia replacing Julien Leparoux when starting from post 4. The colt’s past performances are dotted with fashionable names such as Bodemeister, Union Rags, Alpha, Flat Out, Stay Thirsty, Fort Larned, and Cyber Secret.

“We haven’t gone out of our way to dodge anybody,” said a somewhat amused McPeek.

Other prime considerations include the comebacking Harrods Creek (post 2, Shaun Bridgmohan, 4-1), whose specialty is turf marathons such as this; Ioya Bigtime (post 5, Jeffrey Sanchez, 3-1), a Chicago invader who is much better than his faltering finish as the favorite in the Elkhorn would indicate; and Prime Cut (post 1, Corey Lanerie, 8-1), a decent third, before being disqualified for interference, behind Atigun in the Derby Day allowance.

Rounding out the lineup are Mack’s Blackhawk, Najaar, Al Qasr, and Heathcote.

This is the 76th running of the Louisville, which dates to 1895 and has been run at various combinations of distance and surface through the years. Interestingly, the Louisville had two three-peat winners within a 10-year span, those being Chorwon (1997-99) and Silverfoot (2004-06).

The 2012 running was won by Simmard in the fastest time (2:27.16) since the race assumed its latest incarnation in 2007.

First post Saturday is 12:45 p.m. Eastern, with the Louisville set for 5:24.

Live action continues here through Monday, with the Grade 3, $100,000 Winning Colors serving as the Memorial Day feature. Next Thursday, May 30, will be a dark day.