03/25/2010 12:00AM

Gaming issue looms over big day


FLORENCE, Ky. - For all the fun that will take place Saturday at Turfway Park, where the showcase race, the Lane's End Stakes, will be renewed as a rite of spring, it will be hard to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room.

It would not be unfair to say the quality of racing this winter at Turfway has been weak and uninspiring, perhaps the worst in at least a generation, since before Jerry Carroll began rejuvenating the track in 1986 and intrastate simulcasting proved a boon to business. The primary reason for the moribund mood at Turfway is directly related to an old and tired subject: no alternative gaming at state racetracks.

Marty Maline, the executive director of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, could only shake his head Thursday morning in his backstretch office. The inertia in Kentucky regarding possible gaming legislation has Maline and countless others in the racing industry frustrated.

"It is so, so discouraging," said Maline. "Legislators are watching the Thoroughbred industry in this state implode before their very eyes, and still nobody is doing a thing about it. Turfway and Ellis Park are literally on death's door, and we all think that before too long it's going to affect Churchill Downs to a substantial degree if nothing gets done. It's a very sad situation we're in."

Lukas sends out Northern Giant

One of the first big races D. Wayne Lukas won outside of California was the Jim Beam, known now as the Lane's End, in 1983 with Marfa, who would go on to be part of a favored entry in the Kentucky Derby.

Lukas also won the 1995 Jim Beam with Serena's Song but has been shut out since. He will be represented Saturday in the Lane's End by Northern Giant, a Giant's Causeway colt to be ridden by Calvin Borel.

Northern Giant took six starts to win a maiden race, finally breaking loose with an 11 1/4-length win Feb. 4 at Oaklawn Park. He then was third at 53-1 behind Discreetly Mine in his last start, the Feb. 20 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

"We think he's very much an improving horse," said Sebastian "Bas" Nicholl, who accompanied Northern Giant and two other Lukas runners here from Oaklawn. "He definitely deserves to take his chance. The synthetic track shouldn't hurt him at all, since a lot of the Giant's Causeways have done well over them."

Ramseys keep an eye on Dubai

Ken and Sarah Ramsey and family members will be here early Saturday, and not just to get a head start on their handicapping of the first race. The Ramseys will be watching via simulcast as their latest stable star, Furthest Land, goes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

Furthest Land won the Kentucky Cup Classic here last fall before winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita in his next start.

The World Cup is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. Eastern, just before the second Turfway race. Later in the day, the Ramseys will be represented by Dean's Kitten in the Lane's End.

Hays family gears up for card

The leading owners in North America in wins so far in 2010 will be well represented here Saturday, when the black and green silks of the Hays family are carried in several races, including Vegas Wedding in the Queen Stakes.

Billy Hays, 51, is a Louisville car dealer and businessman who shares a passion for racing with his wife, Donna, and son, Justin. Into Thursday, their horses had won 51 races this year to lead the likes of the Midwest Thoroughbreds syndicate (38 wins), Maggi Moss (35), and Zayat Stables (31).