06/01/2006 11:00PM

Foster is shaping up as strictly local event

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Through the years, standout handicap horses have journeyed from all over the map to compete in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

But unless Buzzards Bay ships from Southern California - and trainer Ron Ellis said Friday that he is "60-40 against" coming - then arguably the top two contenders for the Grade 1 Foster will ship from a destination that could hardly be termed exotic: the Trackside training center, located just a few miles from Churchill.

Brass Hat and Perfect Drift, both longtime Trackside residents, are the top prospects for the $750,000 Foster, the annual highlight of the post-Kentucky Derby segment of the Churchill spring meet. Nominations for the June 17 Foster, and for the other five stakes that will be run on the undercard, were scheduled for release early this week after closing Saturday.

Brass Hat and Perfect Drift both have been pointing for months to the Foster. Brass Hat, who finished second in his most recent race, the March 25 Dubai World Cup, was scheduled to work within the next few days after breezing five furlongs Wednesday, while Perfect Drift is scheduled to work Tuesday, seven days after breezing an easy five furlongs following a brief interruption in his training with what trainer Murray Johnson described as a tender foot.

Meanwhile, Buzzards Bay, unraced since his 6 1/2-length romp in the April 8 Oaklawn Handicap, is more likely than not to stay home for the $250,000 Californian at Hollywood Park the same day as the Foster, although Ellis said he has reserved a flight to Louisville for June 11.

"A lot of it depends on the weather," said Ellis. "Sometimes it can be really hot in Louisville in mid-June, and we sure wouldn't want to ship cross-country to run in those conditions. We'll see what everything looks like and make our decision June 10."

One other notable contender for the Foster is Master Command, winner of the Schaefer Handicap on the May 20 Preakness undercard at Pimlico for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Fast times in the heat

The Churchill main track can become inordinately fast during hot and dry weather, and that was certainly the case here early Thursday, before a major storm moved in to cool things down.

In the first race, Smalltown Slew won a $55,000 claiming race in a rapid 1:21.66 for seven furlongs, and Slider, a former class horse competing under starter-allowance conditions, won the third race when zipping through six furlongs in 1:08.61. Similarly fast times were posted until a downpour hit prior to the sixth race, a grass sprint.

The seventh race was delayed by about 20 minutes because jockeys refused to ride, citing unsafe track conditions caused by the heavy rain. The track had not been sealed before the rain, and after the track-maintenance crew smoothed out some uneven portions of the track, most notably near the six-furlong pole, racing resumed without incident.

Romans approaching 1,000

Dale Romans, who has become the dominant trainer on the Kentucky circuit, is nearing a career milestone: Into the Friday card, Romans had 994 career wins.

Romans, 39, figures to hit the 1,000 milestone in the next week or two. He has won or tied for five of the last six spring titles at Churchill and, having already built a big lead atop the current standings, looks like a shoo-in to make it six of the last seven.