06/26/2007 11:00PM

Churchill, Ellis overlap causes worry


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A potentially difficult situation is just over the horizon for Kentucky racing.

Pursuant to an agreement made last fall when Churchill Downs Inc. sold Ellis Park to Louisville businessman Ron Geary, live racing at the tracks will overlap for five straight days next week, as Churchill closes its spring meet and Ellis opens its summer meet.

The overlap will occur on July 4 through July 8, and horsemen and officials are concerned about having enough horses to make the races go at both tracks. Churchill has struggled recently to fill 51 races per week and averaged less than eight horses per race during the week of June 20-24. And when Churchill and Ellis run concurrently next week, there will be a total of 97 races to fill: 49 at Churchill and 48 at Ellis.

"Any time you have two tracks run in the same time span in the same state, it's going to be a struggle," said Dan Bork, racing secretary at Ellis in Henderson, Ky.

"I don't really know what to expect, to be honest," said Churchill racing secretary Ben Huffman. "Our purse structure is so strong, we should be okay. But with all those races to fill - that's a lot of horseflesh."

The genesis of the overlap stemmed from conditions of the sale, which, through 2011, allow Ellis to share race dates with Churchill around the Fourth of July holiday. Until Churchill bought Ellis in 1998, the Fourth of July weekend was the traditional opening of the Ellis meet, but Churchill eventually took the dates for itself after buying Ellis. During negotiations of this latest sale, Geary and the new Ellis team wanted those dates back, with Churchill ultimately agreeing to a five-year window before the issue is revisited.

Dates overlaps have occurred several times between Churchill and Ellis, including in 1983, 1984, and 1995, and the racing product was diluted at both tracks.

Bork said he and Huffman collaborated on their condition books to avoid offering identical races.

"In the same claiming range, one might be at six furlongs, the other at seven, or one on the dirt and one on the turf," said Bork. "After a while, though, it's almost impossible to not have the same kind of races. We just tried to work together to ease a little bit of the pain."

Bork said competition for runners already is fierce, considering that Indiana Downs, which conducts a similar brand of racing as Ellis, will not complete its meet until Tuesday, and he also noted that Arlington Park has been drawing horses to its new Polytrack surface.

"Everybody knows this is not going to be easy," Bork said.

"You have quite a few jockeys and racing officials that work both tracks, so that stretches you thin there, too," Huffman said. "We'll just all have to make do for a week."

"It's going to be a difficult situation," said trainer Bernie Flint, who will have stables at both tracks. "I'll try to help out in both spots, but I don't really recall there being a situation like this where there's this much overlap. You do tend to have a different caliber of horse at the two tracks, so maybe that will help a little."

Bork said the per-day purse average for the Ellis meet, which runs through Sept. 3, will be about $135,000. The average for the 52-day Churchill meet will be more than $480,000, although that number is not necessarily relevant to the per-day average for the final five days of the meet. Since the Churchill meet began April 28, field size has averaged 8.14 horses per race, down marginally from 8.16 during corresponding dates last year, according to Huffman.

Remarkable News heads Firecracker Handicap

A field of nine older horses was drawn for the $250,000 Firecracker Handicap, the Grade 2 race that will be run as the 10th of 11 races here Saturday.

Remarkable News, winner of the Dixie Stakes at Pimlico in his last start, is the 122-pound highweight in the Firecracker, a one-mile turf race that was won last year by Miesque's Approval, the eventual winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile.

From the hedge, with weights and jockeys, the field for 18th running of the Firecracker is: Remarkable News, 122, Ramon Dominguez; Hold the Salt, 112, Brian Hernandez Jr.; Free Thinking, 114, Jesus Castanon; Brilliant, 121, Mark Guidry; Obi Wan Kenobi, 115, Jamie Theriot; Vega's Lord, 116, Robby Albarado; Crested, 115, Shaun Bridgmohan; Outperformance, 115; Rafael Bejarano; and Tiganello, 115; Julien Leparoux.

The Firecracker purse includes $75,000 in Breeders' Cup funds for eligible horses.

Made Man sharp

Two turf allowances, both worth $50,000, anchor the Friday program at Churchill, where first post is 2:45 p.m. Eastern. The nominal feature, the 10th of 11 races, is for entry-level 3-year-olds going 1 1/8 miles. Self Made Man enters off three straight sharp efforts and looms a major contender for the streaking owner-trainer team of Ken and Sarah Ramsey and Mike Maker. In all, 13 were entered, although only 10 can start if the race stays on the grass.

Two races earlier, older turfers will sprint five furlongs, also under entry-level conditions. Congo King, with Leparoux riding for trainer Patrick Biancone, figures as the one to beat following a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Churchill Downs Turf Sprint on May 4.

Leparoux wins six

Just as soon as Rafael Bejarano closed to within one victory of Julien Leparoux atop the Churchill jockey standings by riding three winners last Sunday, Leparoux drew away again. Leparoux rode six winners - including a dead heat with Bejarano in the featured eighth race - after sweeping the first four races on the Wednesday card, giving him a 58-52 lead over Bejarano at the end of the day.

In the feature, Leparoux, riding High Blues, was up in the final jump to finish on even terms with Save Big Money, ridden by Bejarano, in a second-level allowance route.

A jockey has won six races in a day eight times at Churchill, and Leparoux is the fifth jockey to do it. Pat Day holds the track mark with seven wins in one day.