11/28/2003 12:00AM

A good-betting, four-month meet


They're hunkering down for a long winter in Florence, Ky. That's where Turfway Park will conduct the longest continuous meet on the Kentucky racing circuit, a four-month stand that gets under way Sunday with the Holiday Inaugural Stakes.

As usual, the mantra at Turfway is all about staying alive - and that has nothing to do with braving the harsh elements of wintertime. The business climate at Turfway has been touch-and-go since the first of a handful of neighboring Indiana riverboats became operational in 1995, and track officials find themselves perpetually seeking ways to survive in the face of hostile competition for the regional gambling dollar.

But that's a story for another page. The more relevant question for horseplayers is whether the long Turfway meet will provide sufficient entertainment and wagering opportunities - and the answer is that it most likely will.

The 10-race opener is a useful example of what's on tap. Although most of the races are for cheaper claiming horses, the fields are overflowing, and the feature, the $50,000 Holiday Inaugural, shapes up as a solid race. Don't Countess Out, a 4-year-old filly who has 3 wins and 2 thirds from 5 starts at Turfway, figures as a deserving favorite in the six-furlong Holiday Inaugural.

In her last start, Don't Countess Out finished a close second in a four-horse photo in the Grade 3 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes on Oct. 12 at Keeneland.

"We wanted to run in an allowance race at Churchill after that, but the race didn't fill," said Larry Jones, who trains Don't Countess Out at Ellis Park for Southern Pride Stable. "It's just as well. She's ready to go Sunday."

With her highly effective tactical speed, Don't Countess Out should be able to secure excellent position under Terry Thompson.

The main challengers to Don't Countess Out figure to be Halory Leigh, a sharp recent winner of a Churchill allowance; Timeless Love, who also has a fondness for Turfway, having won 4 of 11 starts at the track; and Put Me In, a winner in 5 of 8 overall starts.

Sunday starts the holiday meet, which runs through Dec. 31. Because of technicalities involving the assigning of dates, the winter-spring meet begins the following day, Jan. 1, and runs through April 1.

Easily the highlight of the combined meets is the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes, a Grade 2 race to be run March 20.