05/29/2002 12:00AM

Duckhorn in turf tightener


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It has been quite a while since Duckhorn raced on a weekday. That's because stakes races are typically run on weekends, and Duckhorn established long ago that he is stakes-class.

Just two starts back, Duckhorn splashed to what may have been the easiest victory of his prodigious career, in the Grade 3 Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland. So when a handful of other older horses line up to face him in the allowance feature Friday at Churchill Downs, they will have their work cut out for them.

Duckhorn, a Maryland-bred owned by Michael Tabor and trained by Pat Byrne, may very well be using the 1 1/16-mile turf race as a prep for the Stephen Foster Handicap, a Grade 1 dirt race to be run here June 15.

Byrne has been noncommittal on the Foster, saying only that Duckhorn needs to run better than he did when he was badly beaten in his last start, the May 18 Hawthorne Gold Cup, to earn a berth in the Foster.

By spotting Duckhorn on turf - and the weather forecast indicates that the $59,500 race will remain on turf - Byrne is injecting an intriguing variable into the equation. Duckhorn is clearly more proven on dirt, but his superior turn of speed seems likely to carry him to a very favorable position in this race, regardless of surface.

Law Review, Proper Man, and Jeremiah Jack rank among the top opponents. Seven were entered to face Duckhorn, although at least one, Horrible Evening, will scratch if the race stays on turf.

Aussie due in town

Australian jockey Gary Palmer is scheduled to join the Churchill jockey colony this weekend.

Palmer, 42, has worked as a jockey for over 25 years, primarily in Australia but also in other countries such as Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia.

Palmer's business will be handled by ailing ex-jockey Randy Romero and his son, Randy II.

"Gary's looking to go to Chicago after that," said Romero.

Meanwhile, Romero said he is still undergoing standard treatments for kidney and liver disease.

"It's not going to be until September that we can do anything different," he said.

* Former jockey Steve Bass has begun working as agent for veteran Jeff Johnston, who is riding mostly at Churchill this spring after being based at River Downs in previous seasons.

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