10/26/2006 11:00PM

Fall meet puts icing on the cake


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This has been quite a year at Churchill Downs.

Not only was 2006 the first full year following the completion of a sweeping $121 million renovation at its flagship racetrack, but the company also named its first new chief executive officer in 22 years (Robert Evans), sold off one of its tracks (Ellis Park), had the longest-priced winner in Kentucky Oaks history (Lemons Forever), had an eventual folk hero (Barbaro) post the largest winning margin in the last 60 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, and hosted the most ambitious non-racing event (a Rolling Stones concert) in Churchill history.

As if all that wasn't enough, now comes a 21-day fall meet highlighted by the $20 million Breeders' Cup World Championships, which will be run next Saturday, Nov. 4.

"It has been a very eventful year for us," said Churchill president Steve Sexton. "But we're ready for this last go-round. The prospect of the Breeders' Cup being here for the first time in six years has really energized everyone in the company. We're all extremely excited about what's ahead of us."

The Breeders' Cup, which will be held at Churchill for the first time since 2000, represents the apex of what will be an action-packed meet from beginning to end. The meet should get off to a great start Sunday with what Churchill is calling "Stars of Tomorrow," an 11-race card exclusively for 2-year-olds. Besides twin Grade 3 co-features, the Iroquois and Pocahontas Stakes, the opening-day program also includes two allowance races and six maiden special weight events, virtually all of them with large, contentious fields that should prove a bettor's delight.

The "Stars of Tomorrow" concept also will conclude the meet on closing day, Nov. 25, with the Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as features. As always, closing day will come on Thanksgiving weekend, during which the Grade 2 Falls City on Nov. 23 and Grade 2 Clark Handicap on Nov. 24 will serve as the main features.

While the field of 11 for the $100,000 Pocahontas (race 10) typifies the opening-day card, the field of seven for the $100,000 Iroquois (race 8) is an anomaly. No worries. Several highly promising 2-year-olds, including Tiz Wonderful, Passport, and Officer Rocket, are the favorites in the one-mile Iroquois, and if they weren't quite ready to test the best of their class next Saturday in the BC Juvenile, their connections are hoping that maybe they will be ready by next May, when the 133rd Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill.

Officer Rocket, a British-bred colt, has 3 wins from 4 starts, including a dead-heat victory in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity. Trainer Bob Holthus said that Officer Rocket "is not a great big, stout, mature horse."

"We wanted to have something for next year," he said. "He's always been able to outwork all the rest of the 2-year-olds I had. He's put together a good record and is just a nice little horse to be around."

The Iroquois field is rounded out by What a Tale, Shore, Incriminate, and Starbase.

The fall meet should reprise what has evolved into a terrific rivalry between Julien Leparoux and Rafael Bejarano, two of the rising stars in the North American jockey colony. They took turns atop the jockey standings here at the spring meet, with Leparoux eventually capturing the title by an 87-81 margin, and they were staging another spirited duel as the Keeneland fall meet in Lexington wound to a close Saturday.

The fall meet is the first as Churchill racing secretary for veteran official Ben Huffman, whose previous stints include a term as racing secretary at another Churchill-owned track, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Huffman, who was named in August to replace Doug Bredar, has been the racing secretary at Keeneland since January 2002 and now will concentrate solely on his positions at the two major Kentucky tracks.

Luke Kruytbosch, back from working meets at Ellis Park, Kentucky Downs, and Turf Paradise, will be in the race-caller's booth for his eighth Churchill fall meet.