10/23/2008 11:00PM

Despite problems, racing still strong

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For the insatiable fan who just couldn't get enough high-end racing with Keeneland and the Breeders' Cup, there's more on the table.

Churchill Downs begins its 26-day fall meet Sunday, with the usual smorgasbord of large fields before many of the top Kentucky stables scatter elsewhere for the winter. Although the meet appears to be starting with the same nagging problem with which the spring meet ended - that is, no agreement between track management and horsemen on account-wagering revenue splits - there have been hints in recent days that a solution may come soon.

Whatever happens there, the primary focus for fans will be on the sights - and sounds - emanating from the racetrack. The five-week meet will be marked by race calls from five men taking a week apiece at what amounts to tryouts for the Churchill announcing job that resulted from the death of Luke Kruytbosch in July.

Bobby Neuman, who hails from the family of Churchill tracks as the regular Calder announcer, will have first crack. Among the 11 races he will call Sunday is the first of 12 graded stakes at the meet, the Grade 3, $100,000 Ack Ack Handicap, which highlights matchups between an old pro, Magna Graduate, and up-and-comers such as Forest Command and Forefathers.

Nearly three years ago, Magna Graduate hit one of the high points in his career when taking the Churchill fall highlight, the Clark Handicap, by outlasting Suave in a long drive. Now 6, and since moved by owner Elisabeth Alexander from one mega-stable to another - Todd Pletcher to Steve Asmussen - Magna Graduate will be turning back from 1 1/4 miles to a one-turn mile when he breaks from the outside post in a field of six. With a bankroll of nearly $2.5 million, the son of Honor Grades has more than double the combined earnings of the rest of the Ack Ack field.

That doesn't make him a cinch Sunday. Forest Command, a homebred colt owned by John and Debby Oxley, comes off a solid third-place finish in the Sept. 20 Super Derby, a race that followed two sharp victories and was just the fourth of his career.

"We've been looking at this spot for a while," trainer John T. Ward Jr. said. "It kind of suits where he is right now. We're not running into either of our two good older horses, Extreme Supreme or Dr. Pleasure, and we're not having to run him against older horses around two turns yet. We'll go next in the Hal's Hope," a one-mile race in early January at Gulfstream Park.

Robby Albarado, who was to ride Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita, has the mount on Forest Command.

"I asked Robby how he thought he'd feel Sunday," said Ward, "and he said, 'Well, either awful good or awful sad.' "

Like Forest Command, Forefathers owns a sustained burst of speed, which he put on full display when winning a second-level allowance before a huge Belmont Stakes crowd on June 7. Forefathers, trained by Bill Mott, easily won that afternoon, earning the type of Beyer Speed Figure (107) that would make him very tough Sunday.

The Ack Ack was worth $200,000 last year but has had its purse slashed in half; many of the stakes at the fall meet underwent substantial cuts. Churchill announced in late August that stakes purses were being cut by nearly $1 million, owing largely to the ongoing dispute over account-wagering revenue splits. The total value for the 2008 fall stakes will be $1,925,000, down a whopping $975,000 from 2007.

The fall stakes purse cut followed a 20 percent decrease in overnight purses at the spring meet (effective May 14), which ran April 26 to July 6 without a resolution between management and horsemen on account-wagering. As of Friday, the stalemate continued to exist, although Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said substantial progress had been made in recent talks.

"We've been working, trying to work it out," Hiles said. "Everything has been pretty productive. We've been pretty close all along."

On Friday, Churchill Downs said it was unlikely a deal would be in place by Sunday.

Meanwhile, new at the fall meet is the Z-5 wager, a super high five that, in a novel twist, will rotate between Churchill and Calder every day. The $1 minimum wager begins with the third race at Churchill, moves to the sixth race at Calder, and finishes with the last race at Churchill. The super high five jackpot carries over to the next race, or the next day, whenever no tickets are sold using the correct combination of the first five finishers.

Besides Albarado and Asmussen, the usual array of top jockeys and trainers will be prominent throughout the meet, which runs through Nov. 29. The per-day purse average will be a little more than $400,000, according to Churchill racing secretary Ben Huffman.