07/28/2006 12:00AM

Horses avoid flying umbrella


Nearly every experienced jockey has had to avoid a collision in his riding career, be it with a fallen horse or rider, or perhaps even with a bird or another animal that has wandered onto the racetrack.

A handful of riders at Ellis Park can claim they dodged an umbrella during a race. Several riders did just that with their mounts in the fifth race at Ellis Park on Thursday, when high, swirling winds lifted a large umbrella off a picnic table on the terrace area of the track, blowing it into the path of the horses as they raced down the stretch. The umbrella didn't hit any horses or riders, and there were no injuries.

Victorious Blue Bay, under Jesus Castanon, was steadied slightly inside the sixteenth pole as the umbrella approached, but she appeared largely unaffected. But second-place Adriatic Lady and third-place New Rochelle only narrowly avoided the flying umbrella. It split the two horses as it flew clear across the width of the track.

Apprentice jockey Randall Toups, who rode New Rochelle, said the incident happened so fast he didn't have time to think, only react. He said he saw Castanon stand up in the irons immediately in front of him, and then saw a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. The next thing he knew, he found himself ducking to avoid the pole of the umbrella, which he said came within two inches of hitting him. "I couldn't believe it," said Toups.

Once every horse and rider safely crossed the wire, relief replaced the anxiety caused by the incident. "We laughed and joked about it," said Toups.

The incident seemingly had no effect on the order of finish, and the race was declared official without the need of an inquiry. "We were very fortunate," said chief steward John Veitch.

If the umbrella had struck a horse, costing it a potential placing, Veitch said the stewards likely would have declared the horse a non-starter for wagering purposes. Betting refunds on that horse would have been issued. Veitch speculated that only in the case of a catastrophic collision would the race have been declared a no-contest.

Track employees were in the process of taking down all the umbrellas on the track terrace when the incident occurred, but the gusting winds that hit the track came so quickly that they could not be removed in time, Veitch said.

Two little-known riders top standings

A little more than a week into the Ellis Park meet, the jockey and trainer standings more closely resemble those from Indiana Downs than the recently concluded Churchill Downs meet.

Apprentice jockey Victor Lebron and journeyman Orlando Mojica - both of whom rode regularly at Indiana Downs before riding at Ellis Park - sit first and second in the rider standings, with eight and seven victories through Thursday. In the trainer standings, Ralph Martinez and Barbara McBride lead with three wins apiece. Both train at Indiana Downs and Fairmount Park.

The success of Indiana Downs connections can be attributed to at least two factors. First, many top Churchill Downs riders and trainers bypass or de-emphasize the meet. Secondly, the races that are carded regularly at Ellis Park are of lesser quality and well-suited to invaders from small tracks such as Indiana Downs.

Lebron saw the Ellis Park meet as an opportunity for him to break in on the circuit. A 22-year-old native of the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Lebron decided to shift his tack from Indiana and Ohio. His apprentice allowance lasts through November, he said.

Gardenia comes sooner than usual

The top day of racing at Ellis Park takes place Saturday with the running on the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes, one of four stakes races scheduled for that afternoon.

The Gardenia has traditionally been run in mid-August, but racing secretary Doug Bredar decided to move the race up a couple of weeks to avoid a conflict with the Aug. 12 Arlington Million. The new move also puts the Gardenia and its supporting stakes one day ahead of the nine stakes races that Mountaineer Park has scheduled for its West Virginia Derby day program Aug. 6.

The field for the Gardenia will not take shape until after weights are announced Saturday. Bredar said he believes trainer Todd Pletcher will run one of his four nominees, likely La Reason, and he expects trainer Marty Wolfson to run either Mocita or Prospective Saint. Dash of Humor, Maggie Slew, and Character Builder are others potential starters.

* Sunday's featured 10th race at Ellis Park is a $26,000 overnight handicap at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf. Actual, a winner of three of four starts in turf sprints, rates as the one to beat in a short field that includes Charging Indian, Danieltown, and Chosen Chief.