05/22/2008 12:00AM

Dispute hurting field size, handle

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Horseplayers often prove quite resilient. Even in times of war, outrageous gas prices, purse cuts, and prolonged contractual squabbles, they still can be relatively content in their own little world if only the ontrack product remains satisfactory.

The thing is, real-life problems are starting to manifest themselves in what Churchill Downs has been serving up lately to its fans. Fields have been shorter, and although the track no longer releases business figures, one revealing sign that all is not well arose Wednesday when Churchill abruptly stopped offering guaranteed pools on its late pick-four wager.

In the wake of a contractual stalemate between Churchill management and horsemen regarding simulcasting and account-wagering revenues, purses were cut 20 percent, effective May 14. Horsemen since have claimed the cut was unjustified because overall handle has not dropped nearly as much - an official with the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, who did not wish to be identified, said Thursday that the latest figures show overall wagering is down about 7 percent. And yet the cut remains in effect, Churchill has filed a lawsuit against the horsemen, and there is no sign of the dispute being resolved.

Still, the show goes on, and it has been difficult not to notice the plethora of six- and seven-horse fields each day. Churchill racing secretary Ben Huffman said that the average of 7.89 horses per race (through Wednesday) is down from 8.23 at the same time last year, adding that he believes the purse cut is only one of several reasons for the decline.

"We've struggled with entries since the first day of the meet," on April 26, said Huffman. "We had eight or nine outfits cancel on us. There were a lot of useful older horses claimed away at Fair Grounds, Keeneland, and Florida. Our 2-year-olds have been slow to come around; at Keeneland, we had two baby races that didn't fill, and that never happens. So the purse cut is just one of the reasons we're having a tough time."

Churchill general manager Jim Gates said Thursday that he was unable to confirm whether business has declined, "but obviously when field size decreases and distribution of your simulcast signal decreases, it almost invariably leads to business level declines."

As part of the contract dispute, betting on Churchill racing is currently suspended on two major account-wagering sites, Twinspires.com and XpressBet, while the Churchill signal also is unavailable at wagering outlets throughout the state of Florida.

"You can't begin to quantify what something like that costs you," said Gates.

The only comforting aspect to the struggles Churchill is experiencing with its racing product, said Gates, is that "entries are down everywhere in the country. Everywhere you look, they've having a tough time filling races."

The elimination of the pick-four guarantees ($50,000 on weekdays, $100,000 on weekends) came about when Churchill experienced shortfalls three times during a six-day period. The track had to make up more than $30,000 in the pool last Saturday.

Sam P. yet to regain form

There's always something at least a little intriguing about a Kentucky Derby also-ran returning to the scene of his drubbing. And so it will be Saturday when Sam P., ninth of 20 in the 2007 Derby, runs in the ninth race, a second-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles.

Sam P. has gone winless in four starts since finishing 13 lengths behind Street Sense in the Derby. Following a 6 1/2-month layoff, he returned to action last month in a Keeneland allowance, finishing seventh of eight.

Julien Leparoux has the call from trainer Todd Pletcher aboard Sam P., who was assigned post 7 in a field of 10.

Trujillo's hot hand continues

After winning with his first three mounts of the meet last Saturday, newcomer Elvis Trujillo continued to impress the local fans this week. Trujillo won with two of three mounts Wednesday, then with one of his first two mounts Thursday, giving him 6 wins from his first 12 mounts.

Trujillo, 24, was the leading rider last year at Calder. A native of Panama, Trujillo said he intends to stay here through the end of the meet, July 6.