05/04/2004 11:00PM

Derby eve talk was of home turf


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Veteran trainer Bill Carrelli and his daughter Christina Minnick attended the Mint Jubilee ball in downtown Louisville on the night before the 130th Kentucky Derby with the hopes of getting to meet Michael Imperioli, one of the stars of the HBO hit "The Sopranos."

"Christina is crazy about him," said Carrelli, who trains a two-horse stable at Louisville Trackside. "But Michael was a no-show."

But as things turned out, the night could not have gone any better. Carrelli and his daughter wound up being seated with the party of jockey Stewart Elliott, and they soon found they had a common tie that made for an evening that neither father nor daughter will never forget.

"Pennsylvania," said Carrelli, 57. "I told Stewart about how I trained a great Pennsylvania-bred a while back, and we really started hitting it off."

In 1981 and 1982, Carrelli trained a speedy filly named Ambassador of Luck, who eventually would become the first Pennsylvania-bred to win an Eclipse Award. Although Mitchell Preger had assumed the training of Ambassador of Luck by the time she was named North America's top sprinter in 1983 at age 4, it was Carrelli who raised her and trained her for the first eight races of her career before partial interest in the filly was sold to new ownerships. "I broke her maiden at River Downs, in fact," Carrelli said.

Although there have been quite a few top Pennsylvania-breds to follow Ambassador of Luck - including Danzig, Go for Wand, Lil E. Tee, Lyphard, and Storm Cat - the Keystone State's profile in the racing industry has never been higher than it is now. Undefeated Smarty Jones, the winner of Derby 130, is a Pennsylvania-bred who was ridden by Elliott, the perennial leading rider at Philadelphia Park, where the Ambassador of Luck Stakes is still run on an annual basis.

"I told Stewart that if it rained before the Derby," which it did, "that this racetrack tends to favor speed," Carrelli said. "Whether he listened or not, he sure did a great job."

Carrelli said Elliott showed him and his daughter great respect and friendship and that they were thrilled with the win by Smarty Jones. "The kid's got a lot of class," Carrelli said. "To be with him on the eve of true greatness was just a hell of a thing. We didn't get to meet Michael Imperioli, but we got a whole lot more."

Perfect Drift pointing for Foster

Perfect Drift, second as the favorite in the Alysheba Stakes on April 30, came out of the race in good condition and is being pointed toward the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 12, trainer Murray Johnson said.

A winner of more than $2.2 million, Perfect Drift was beaten 1 3/4 lengths by Congrats in the Alysheba, his second race of the year. It followed an eighth-place finish in the Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland on April 9.

"We knew going in that he was not 100 percent fit," Johnson said. Jockey Pat Day "gave him a perfect trip, but the winner was clear on the lead. He just got a little weary late."

Despite the two losses, Johnson is encouraged by how Perfect Drift is approaching the Stephen Foster, a race he won last year over the Horse of the Year, Mineshaft. The Maker's Mark and Alysheba were preps chosen by Johnson to get him to the Stephen Foster in prime condition.

When Perfect Drift won the Stephen Foster last year, he was also making his third start of the year.

Azeri may go in Met Mile

D. Wayne Lukas confirmed Wednesday that he is seriously considering running Azeri against male rivals in the May 31 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park.

"We're looking at that, along with another couple of options," said Lukas. "We're keeping everything open right now."

Lukas said the other possible next starts for Azeri are the June 19 Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont or the June 12 Fleur de Lis at Churchill. Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, incurred just her third career defeat from 18 starts when narrowly beaten here Saturday in the Humana Distaff.

Consolation payouts in pick threes

Several rules changes governing pick three wagers at Churchill Downs went into effect Wednesday, most notably the use of consolation payouts in the case of late scratches.

Under previous guidelines, a late scratch in the pick three resulted in the substitution of the post-time favorite. Now, a consolation payout will be calculated and paid out in case a customer correctly selects the other two winners in the pick three.

In the case of a dead heat, there now will be split-pool payouts instead of a single-price payout that covered all horses involved in the dead heat.

Also, refunds will now be automatically made in case a horse is scratched before the running of the first leg. Refunds previously were not allowed.

The new rules affect only pick three wagers, not the pick four or pick six. Churchill acting general manager Jim Gates said the changes were made largely in response to recommendations by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Players' Panel. Churchill is the first Kentucky track to enact the new rules, although other state tracks are expected to follow suit.

Kentucky BC possible for Lunarpal

Lunarpal, winner of the Three Chimneys Juvenile on the Kentucky Derby undercard, bounced out of the race well and is being considered for the Grade 3 Kentucky Breeders' Cup at Churchill June 5, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

Lunarpal's victory followed a dominant month for Asmussen with 2-year-olds in Kentucky. Since the Keeneland meet began in early April, he has a 19-5-5-5 record in 2-year-old races in Kentucky. Four of his 15 first-out 2-year-olds have won. "This looks like it might be our best year ever," he said.

Besides Lunarpal, some of his other top 2-year-olds include Primal Storm, a six-length maiden winner on April 29 at Churchill, and Limitless Lady, a debut winner at Keeneland on April 21. Primal Storm is also under consideration for the Kentucky Breeders' Cup. Asmussen said he was reluctant to run Limitless Lady, a filly, against males in stakes company, but would like to race her before the Grade 3 Debutante at Churchill July 4, perhaps in an allowance race.

A reluctant start for Carroll

Fire Slam will race Saturday in the lone stakes here this weekend, the $100,000 Matt Winn Stakes, although trainer David Carroll is not particularly happy about having to face Cuvee at six furlongs.

"Distance-wise and timing-wise, we didn't have a whole lot of options," Carroll said. "We're pointing to the Riva Ridge," a seven-furlong race on the June 5 Belmont Stakes undercard.

Pat Day will ride Fire Slam, while Shane Sellers will have the mount on Cuvee, the Steve Asmussen-trained standout who will be making his first start in 6 1/2 months. About four or five other 3-year-olds are likely to run.

Test major goal for Madcap Esacpade

Madcap Escapade, the speedy Frank Brothers-trained filly who incurred her first career defeat when she finished third last Friday in the Kentucky Oaks, returned to training Tuesday and is no worse for wear, trainer Frank Brothers said.

The Grade 1 Test Stakes, a seven-furlong race at Saratoga on July 31, is the next major goal for Madcap Escapade, Brothers said. In the meantime, "we're going to chill for a while," he said.

Options for Pro Prado

Pro Prado, the 13th-place Derby finisher, probably will make his next start here in the Northern Dancer Handicap on dirt, although the Jefferson Cup, a 1 1/8-mile grass race on the same June 12 program, is the other option, trainer Bob Holthus said.

"Probably dirt, although I'll see how things go," Holthus said. "The main thing is he came out of the Derby great."

Senor Swinger may have quick return

Senor Swinger, an impressive winner of a turf allowance here last week, could wheel back in the Dixie Handicap on the May 15 Preakness undercard at Pimlico, trainer Bob Baffert said. "It looks like he came out of his race great, so we'll think about it," he said.

Meanwhile, Baffert said Congaree came out of his fourth-place finish in the Churchill Downs Handicap in good order. Baffert said he is scheduled to discuss the 6-year-old horse's future with owner Bob McNair this week. The clunker in the CD 'Cap was the second in a row for Congaree, who has earned more than $3.26 million.

- additional reporting by Byron King