05/12/2002 11:00PM

Hand injury to suddenly hot Lopez an unlucky break

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The hairline fracture jockey James Lopez suffered in his left hand last weekend at Churchill Downs was an awful break for him.

Lopez was enjoying the most productive stretch in his six-year career when the injury occurred, and it will prevent him from riding for about six weeks. Lopez, 24, was thrown to the ground in the fifth race on Saturday, when his mount, All Purpose, clipped heels and fell. Lopez was taken to a nearby hospital where the fracture was diagnosed.

"It's a shame because business was so good," said Lopez's agent, Steve Elzey.

Indeed, given the momentum he had going, Lopez figured to finish as high as third or fourth in the jockey standings at the 52-day Churchill spring meet, behind only Pat Day and Robby Albarado. Lopez, a native of San Antonio, was coming off a breakthrough meet at Oaklawn Park, where he was the leading rider for the first time.

All Purpose, a 3-year-old maiden trained by Ronny Werner, was not seriously injured.

Mother's Day draws big crowd

With the Churchill grandstand section shut down for demolition and reconstruction, ontrack crowds are restricted to a more confined space in the clubhouse. Whereas in previous years a crowd of 20,000 would spread out, there now is a more intense edge to the place with the new arrangement.

This was in evidence Sunday, when a Mother's Day crowd of 17,882 was so loud that it seemed almost like Kentucky Derby Day. The screaming and cheering even came across clearly on the public-address system, which typically occurs here only on major racing days.

Mother's Day at Churchill has become something of a happening for many families in this area. The track also had a T-shirt giveaway, which clearly helped boost attendance. Traffic in neighborhoods surrounding the track was bumper-to-bumper 30 minutes before first post, which is an obvious sign of a higher-than-normal day for ontrack attendance.

Churchill honors Seattle Slew

Churchill paid tribute Saturday between races to one of its most popular Derby winners ever, Seattle Slew, who died last week at 28.

Churchill vice president John Asher read a brief tribute to Seattle Slew, who, in a remarkable coincidence, died 25 years to the day after his Derby triumph of May 7, 1977.

A video montage of Seattle Slew was shown on the in-house television monitors, followed by a live rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" by track bugler Steve Buttleman.

Monmouth not yet on simulcast menu

Notably absent from the schedule of imported simulcast signals at Churchill last weekend was Monmouth Park, which began its spring-summer meet on Saturday with an abbreviated weekend schedule.

Churchill does not plan to import the Monmouth signal next weekend, either. But when Monmouth begins its normal five-day-a-week schedule on May 25, Churchill will begin offering Monmouth.

Whiting's streak snapped at six

It took a huge effort by a rival horse, but trainer Lynn Whiting finally lost a race.

Whiting had won six straight races going into the second race on Saturday, when it appeared he would make it seven in a row, with Missme. Missme took a what seemed to be a commanding lead in midstretch before being defeated by a head by Sharp Gold.

Whiting's remarkable run put him atop the Churchill trainer standings with a 6-for-8 record.

The Churchill record for consecutive wins by a trainer was set by Pat Byrne in 1997, when sent out eight winners to open the spring meet.

* Amanda Nicolls, 18, died Saturday in a Denver hospital after a long bout with cancer. She and several of her family members and friends attended the May 4 Kentucky Derby as guests of Churchill Downs, because it was her wish to see the Derby.

Nicolls initially was befriended by such racing luminaries as Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, and Bob and Beverly Lewis in 1997, when she attended her first Derby through the Make A Wish Foundation, a charity that aids terminally ill children.

* The traditional Preakness Day feature at Churchill is the $100,000 Mint Julep Handicap, a Grade 3 race for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on turf. A crowd of some 20,000 is expected.