07/06/2003 11:00PM

Court's five-year title streak in jeopardy


LOUISVILLE - Just as the horses competing at Ellis Park and Churchill Downs often differ, so too do the names atop the rider standings. Cornelio Velasquez and Pat Day, the one-two finishers from the recently concluded Churchill Downs spring meet, do not ride at Ellis Park. Neither does Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, or Shane Sellers, except periodically in stakes races.

In their absence Jon Court has capitalized in recent years. Court has won an unprecedented five straight riding titles, and starting Wednesday, he bids for a sixth when the Ellis Park meet gets under way.

The defense of his riding title appears more difficult than in years past. John McKee, who finished third in the standings at Churchill, will ride at Ellis Park for the first time, and joining him will be a deep cast of riders, including Calvin Borel, Jason Lumpkins, James Lopez, Terry Thompson, Rafael Bejarano, Willie Martinez, and Dean Butler.

Last year, Court had the momentum of a successful spring to set him up for the summer at Ellis Park. His numbers have dropped this year. He won a single race at Keeneland in April, and he finished the Churchill Downs meet with 16 winners from 254 mounts. The previous year at Churchill, he won with 48 of 364 mounts.

"It's been tough," said Court. "But I realize the situation and you just have to persevere."

Court rode at Oaklawn Park last winter, instead of Gulfstream Park in Florida. Although the move accounted for more winners over the winter months, it left him without key mounts on many of the better horses that excelled at Keeneland and Churchill. He also found it difficult to break back into the stables that had wintered in Florida.

"[Going to Oaklawn] had a major effect," he said. "And it just kind of happened that some of my outfits were running a low percentage. So that reflects on my stats."

This month Court has begun to heat up after many seconds and thirds during the Churchill meet. Court won three races last week at Churchill, and Saturday he won the $250,000 Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows aboard Excessivepleasure.

Bernie Flint's stable loaded

Court is not the only one at a hot streak at Ellis Park. Bernie Flint has won four straight Ellis training titles, and 11 overall. His vast stable is ideally suited for the mid-level racing that takes place at Ellis Park. Flint will base 32 horses at Ellis Park, and will ship in horses from Churchill.

Last year it was an all Flint exacta in the training standings, with son Steve Flint finishing second with a 10-for-22 season.

Trainer Dale Romans, who topped the Churchill standings, will also be represented with runners at Ellis, although he does not race as many horses at Ellis Park as at other Kentucky tracks. He went 8 for 31 in 2002.

Full fields for first two cards

A total of 232 horses were entered for the Wednesday and Thursday 10-race cards at Ellis Park, with all but three of the races filled to capacity. Two entry-level allowances highlight the opening-day program. Gin and Sin, an easy winner of his turf debut, runs in the eighth race, and Adam Man steps up in class in the ninth race after winning a maiden $50,000 claimer at Churchill last month by nearly 10 lengths.

Unable to compete with other tracks for claiming purses, Ellis is relying on its turf course and location to attract horsemen.

Racing secretary Doug Bredar, in his second year at Ellis Park, made a few changes to the condition book to increase field size from last year's average of 8.6 runners per race. Ellis now offers turf racing down to the $15,000 claiming level, and maiden $50,000 claiming races have also been carded for grass.

Allowance purses at Ellis Park are about $2,000 behind those at Arlington, and about $5,000 ahead of those at Mountaineer - provided a horse is a Kentucky-bred. One-third of each allowance race is funded by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. The KTDF also enhances many stakes purses throughout the meet.

One factor Bredar anticipates aiding Ellis Park is the increased fitness of Indiana-based runners due to the opening of Indiana Downs this spring. "Instead of just training, they should be fit and ready to race," said Bredar.