09/14/2004 11:00PM

Elite often meet at Kentucky Cup

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Before reaching stardom, Cajun Beat (left) beats Clock Stopper in last year's Kentucky Cup Sprint.

FLORENCE, Ky. - Ten years ago this month at Turfway Park, Jerry Carroll did what he has done most of his adult life: He made something out of nothing.

"The fall meet was awful, just awful," said Carroll, who owned Turfway during a pivotal 13-year period (1986-99) in the northern Kentucky track's history. "We had also just gone through a terrible feud [in 1993] with the horsemen, and we were looking to create a positive out of a negative. We thought, 'What in the world can we do to get people interested in Turfway Park?' "

Thus an innovation called the Kentucky Cup was born on Sept. 24, 1994. Not even Carroll, a wild-catting and highly successful entrepreneur who is now out of horse racing and owns a stock-car track in rural Kentucky, could imagine just how favorably horsemen and fans throughout North America would react to his attempt to create a landmark date on the racing calendar. On Saturday, Turfway will host the 11th Kentucky Cup - an event of undisputed success, one that has carried national impact since its initial running.

"I still remember molding it," Carroll said this week from his home in northern Kentucky, "and we said, 'Now let's go get the good horses.' Well, when we got Best Pal and Tabasco Cat, two of the best horses in the country, we were astonished. Delighted, but absolutely astonished."

Indeed, a decade's worth of top horses have passed through the Kentucky Cup on their way to and from great things. Tabasco Cat, then 3, beat the older icon Best Pal in the first running of the Kentucky Cup Classic, the signature event of what has evolved into an annual program of five races. Since then, genuine standouts such as Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, Point Given, Spain, and Vindication have further solidified the stature of the Kentucky Cup.

And when the $825,000 Kentucky Cup goes here Saturday, trainer Dale Romans is hoping that his stable star, Roses in May, will add his name to that illustrious roster. Romans is using the $350,000 Classic as the final prep race for Roses in May for the Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park.

"I think it's a great spot for us," said Romans. "The Kentucky Cup has produced champions and Breeders' Cup winners. I really think it's a great stepping-stone. The timing is good and the races are designed the right way."

Carroll credits his longtime business aide, Mark Simendinger, along with horsemen's representatives Marty Maline and Don Ball with helping to get the Kentucky Cup off the ground.

"Then it was D. Wayne Lukas who really got us going," said Carroll. "Just about every good horse he had, he brought to us. He gave us the kind of credibility you couldn't get just anywhere."

Lukas, whose 13 wins are easily the most in Kentucky Cup history, has been joined by other star trainers in his support of the series, most notably Bob Baffert. "I think the shining moment in the 10 years came when Baffert brought Silver Charm for the Classic [in 1998], and there was that exciting dead heat with Wild Rush," said Carroll. "I swear, there were people with tears in their eyes that day."

Bob Elliston, who has served as Turfway president since 1999, when Keeneland led a business partnership that bought the track from Carroll, said he is appreciative of the momentum the previous regime gave to the Kentucky Cup.

"It's a huge day for us," said Elliston. "As far as a day of preps for the Breeders' Cup, we believe it holds its own with any of them. Now our job is to build on that momentum and keep it in the national spotlight every year."

Still, Carroll and Elliston agree there are inherent problems with a September date that will always keep the Kentucky Cup from being on par with racing's most glamourous events.

"Securing major television coverage is problematic because football dominates your Saturday programming," said Elliston. "We can't afford to go to a Sunday because it's such an important day in terms of handle for us."

The total Kentucky Cup handle is expected to be about $6 million, and attendance should be around 8,000, which is about 10,000 fewer people than attend Turfway's big day in the spring, Lane's End Day.

"That's a reflection of all the things that are going on in the Cincinnati area at this time of year," Elliston said, "but also the fact that this event is only 10 years old compared to more than 30" for the Lane's End.

A chance to see high-end racing is what will draw far more fans here Saturday than any other day in the fall. Although either of the two races for 2-year-olds stands a chance to produce a legitimate Breeders' Cup starter, the race with the most obvious BC contender is the Grade 2 Classic, in which the speedy Roses in May figures to be a huge favorite. Roses in May enters the 1 1/8-mile Classic off a gutsy win in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 7.

"As long as he'll relax and rate early, it doesn't really matter what happens from there," said Romans. "I just don't want him to get too aggressive early, and I want to see him finish up running.

"I'd rather this not be a race like the Whitney, where he has to give a gut-wrenching effort, although for $350,000, you don't see that very often. But that'd be the perfect scenario, for him to run the right way, win, and still not have to run his eyeballs out. If all that happens, I think we'll be able to get enough out of him so that we're headed to the Breeders' Cup in perfect shape."

Regardless of how Roses in May performs Saturday and in the Breeders' Cup, Carroll is proud of what the Kentucky Cup has become.

"Turfway is not Churchill Downs, and it's not Keeneland," he said. "We felt back then that we had to really create our own niche. And I think we did okay."

Kentucky Cup success stories
(Horse / Ky. Cup / Later feat)

1995

* Thunder Gulch: Won Ky. Cup Classic, champion 3-year-old
* Editor's Note: Won Ky. Cup Juvenile, won 1996 Belmont

1996

* Boston Harbor: Won Ky. Cup Juvenile, won Breeders' Cup Juvenile

1998

* Silver Charm: Dead heat for win in Ky. Cup Classic, 2nd Breeders' Cup Classic
* Reraise: Won Ky. Cup Sprint, won Breeders' Cup Sprint

1999

* Cat Thief: 3rd in Ky. Cup Classic, won Breeders' Cup Classic

2000

* Spain: Won Turfway BC, won Breeders' Cup Distaff
* Point Given: Won Ky. Cup Juvenile, won 2001 Preakness and Belmont
* Caller One: Won Ky. Cup Sprint, won 2001 Dubai Golden Shaheen
* Captain Steve: Won Ky. Cup Classic, won 2001 Dubai World Cup

2002

* Vindication: Won Ky. Cup Juvenile, won Breeders' Cup Juvenile

2003

* Cajun Beat: Won Ky. Cup Sprint, won Breeders' Cup Sprint