07/10/2006 12:00AM

A finish too close to call

Reed Palmer Photography
Rafael Bejarano's win on Circular Quay tightened up the jockeys' race.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The final acts in what already has been a remarkable Churchill jockeys' race are to be played out this week between Julien Leparoux and Rafael Bejarano. Into the final five of 57 days, Leparoux held a tenuous 80-78 lead atop the standings.

Despite the hot and cold streaks that typically occur over the course of such a long meet, the young jockeys have never been separated by more than five wins at the end of any program.

"That tells you how close it's been," said Steve Bass, the former jockey who is Leparoux's agent.

The closeness of their sustained duel for the jockey title matches their personal relationship. Since they were introduced by a mutual friend last summer at Saratoga, Bejarano and Leparoux have become good friends, even away from the racetrack.

Bejarano, a 24-year-old Peruvian, uses Spanish as a primary language, while Leparoux, the French apprentice who turns 23 on Saturday, speaks his native tongue. But both have made steady progress with their English, which had been a communications barrier when each came to the United States several years ago.

"Rafael tried to teach me Spanish," Leparoux said, smiling, "but . . . "

"We speak English to each other," said Bejarano.

As the race for leading rider heats up, both men say they will do their best but are wishing the other well.

"I am happy for Julien," said Bejarano. "He has done very well. He not only is a good jockey but good people."

Bejarano and Leparoux already have tied for one riding crown, having deadlocked with 17 wins apiece at the Keeneland spring meet in April. Both are headed to the Saratoga meet that starts July 26.

Romans, Ramseys nearing records

The additional week at the Churchill spring meet should allow trainer Dale Romans and his main clients, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, to break meet records for wins.

Going into the final week, Romans had sent out 39 winners, equaling the record he set at the 2003 meet. Meanwhile, the Ramseys, who already have won or shared 10 owners' titles at Churchill, had 17 winners. On six previous occasions, the leading owner at a spring meet has had 19 wins, including the Ramseys three times (2000, 2002, 2004). As for the jockey record, Pat Day's 90 in 1991 is within the range of Leparoux and Bejarano.

Of course, there would be no records broken if Churchill had stuck with its traditional closing date, which had been the first or second weekend of July, depending on when the calendar fell. The meet was prolonged an additional week, through Sunday, so that Churchill could squeeze an extra week out of its classier racing brand while clipping a week off the summer meet at Ellis Park, the western Kentucky track owned by parent company Churchill Downs Inc.

For purposes of single-meet records, Churchill does not count the 1983 and 1984 spring-summer meets, when nearly 100 days of racing were conducted. Meets since then generally have run a bit longer than 50 days, and this 2006 meet is the longest of those.

Greeley's Galaxy Saratoga-bound

Greeley's Galaxy is headed to Saratoga with a nice win under his belt. Ridden by Bejarano, the 4-year-old colt ran down Yes Yes Yes for a narrow victory in a six-furlong allowance here Sunday, giving trainer Al Stall Jr. reason for optimism for the rest of the year.

"I have no idea what his next start will be," said Stall, who assumed the training of Greeley's Galaxy for owner B. Wayne Hughes this spring. "All I know is he's headed north on a van next Monday."

Greeley's Galaxy had gone winless in six starts, albeit in elite company, since his 9 1/2-length victory in the Illinois Derby in April 2005.

One race after the Greeley's Galaxy race, It's No Joke, ridden by Jesus Castanon, was along just in time to win the $70,900 Bet on Sunshine at seven furlongs. Trainer Becky Maker was unable to secure travel arrangements from Chicago for the race but said shortly afterward by phone that she would like to keep It's No Joke racing at one turn.

"You've got to kind of keep after him," she said. "I'm thrilled with the way he ran today."

It's No Joke, who returned $23.80, now has won two straight one-turn races at Churchill since back-to-back defeats in two-turn graded stakes.

With Distinction, trained by Maker's former longtime boss, D. Wayne Lukas, led to deep stretch before finishing second as the favorite behind It's No Joke. The defeat ended yet another weekend of frustration for Lukas, whose record at the meet includes 6 wins and 16 seconds from 81 starters.

Gate opens late for one horse

A rare malfunction at the starting gate led to refunds on all wagers involving Delta Charlie in the fifth race Sunday. The front gate for Delta Charlie, a 21-1 shot starting from post 6 in the six-furlong race for $40,000 claimers, opened a split second after the rest of the field. As a result, he was declared a non-starter.