06/25/2003 12:00AM

Flatter set to return after detour

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Steve Penrod ranks fifth all-time in stakes wins at Churchill Downs, having sent out 22 winners, many of them for Claiborne Farm.

But after Claiborne began sending its horses to other trainers in the mid-1990's, stakes wins - at Churchill or any other track - have been few and far between for Penrod. "It's been a long time between drinks," he said.

That drought may end soon enough if Flatter, a 4-year-old A.P. Indy colt, is as good now as he was a year ago. Forced to the sidelines by a cracked cannon bone that required surgery, Flatter will make his first start in nearly 10 months when he faces seven other older horses in the Friday feature, a $62,000 allowance at 7 1/2 furlongs.

Flatter is the best horse that Claiborne has sent to Penrod since the juggernaut farm parted ways with its private trainer, Frank Brothers, nearly two years ago. After starting his career last June with a fourth-place finish, Flatter reeled off three straight wins, all in impressive fashion. The colt exited a September victory at Turfway Park with the cannon-bone fracture, but Penrod believes that Flatter is capable of resuming his career successfully.

"He's still got a couple of screws in there from the surgery, but he's seemed to come back fine," said Penrod, 50. "He showed a whole lot of promise last year, and we sure thought he was on his way. Now he's had the injury and the long layoff, so Friday's the first step back. Hopefully he can carry on."

Penrod, who remains stabled at Churchill during the summer months, said he has thought no further ahead than the Friday race for Flatter. "He'll let us know where we go from here," he said.

Before the spring meet began April 26, Penrod's 22 stakes wins at Churchill trailed only Bill Mott (65), D. Wayne Lukas (62), Shug McGaughey (28), and Bob Baffert (24).

Claiborne owns several of the 15 horses that Penrod has in Barn 41. As with many Claiborne horses, Flatter is co-owned by Adele Dilschneider.

The caliber of opponents for Flatter in the ninth of 10 Friday races would make a strong return effort even more meaningful. The field includes Missme and Gold Dollar, both of whom already have posted sharp victories at the meet.

The Friday feature is the lone allowance on a program that carries a first post of 2:45 p.m. Eastern.