09/15/2005 12:00AM

Classic typifies wide-open Ky. Cup card


FLORENCE, Ky. - The Kentucky Cup has seen more than its share of superstar horses prevailing in short fields, so Turfway Park president Bob Elliston doesn't exactly know what to make of the way the five-race series shapes up for its 12th running Saturday.

"As a racetrack operator, you love to have the big names," said Elliston. "But when they're in a six-horse field, is that what the public really wants? At the end of the day, you might be better off with big, competitive fields."

Whether large fields without starpower are what racing fans want, that's what they're getting Saturday at Turfway. The $825,000 series drew 46 entries, with 10 of them in the anchor race, the Grade 2, $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic.

"The race isn't easy, but there's nothing that really jumps out at you," said Cole Norman, who will send Louisiana Downs shipper Absent Friend.

In his last two starts, Absent Friend has finished 11th in the Dallas Turf Cup and fourth in the Evangeline Mile, but Norman remains confident.

"This ol' horse is doing good, and I really think you can throw out his last two races," he said. "We wouldn't have shipped up if we didn't think we had a good chance."

While is no household name, his jockey qualifies as such. Norman gave the mount to Patrick Valenzuela, who will be joined in the Turfway jockeys' room Saturday by such big names as Gary Stevens, Rafael Bejarano, Mark Guidry, and Craig Perret.

Favoritism appears up for grabs in the Classic. Other contenders include Grand Reward, winner of the Oaklawn Handicap in April; , who earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure in a recent win at Saratoga; and Salford City, a turf specialist fresh off a sharp triumph at Belmont Park.

The Classic is run at 1 1/8 miles and is carded as the 11th of 14 races on a program that also includes four simulcasts from Kentucky Downs. The other Kentucky Cup races are the $100,000 Juvenile fillies (race 9), $100,000 Juvenile (race 10), $175,000 Turfway Breeders' Cup (race 12), and $100,000 Sprint (race 13).

This will be the first Kentucky Cup run over Turfway's new Polytrack racing surface.

The weather forecast for Saturday in the Cincinnati region calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70's.

First post Saturday is 1:10 p.m. Live television coverage is being provided by TVG.