06/29/2003 11:00PM

Improving Romero returns to backstretch

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Former jockey Randy Romero, who has been battling severe liver and kidney ailments for about a year, said last weekend that a new medicine to rid his liver of hepatitis-C virus "has been working" and that his doctors "are happy with how I'm doing. They think it's possible that if the virus doesn't come back, then I'll be able to go on and get a new kidney."

Romero, who retired in 1999 with 4,294 victories and lives in Louisville, said he is "feeling a lot better than I had. I've been up walking and trying to a little bit more stuff." Saturday morning, said Romero, "I even came out to the backside."

Romero said if all goes well, he could undergo a kidney transplant in December or January. His older brother, Edwin, already has volunteered to give Romero one of his kidneys.

Romero, 46, was one of three jockeys on the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame ballot this year. Mike Smith won the vote and will be inducted into the Hall next month in Saratoga.

Albarado's turn for a slump

When Robby Albarado won the first race here Sunday aboard Sir Prado, the victory brought some relief to an uncharacteristic slump for the standout jockey.

Albarado entered the day 1 for his last 40 and 2 for his last 50 at Churchill. Those streaks included his narrow loss aboard heavily favored Mineshaft in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap. Albarado had been second in the Churchill standings to Cornelio Velasquez after winning four races on June 7 but has faded to fourth during the skid. After the Sir Prado win, Albarado lost with his final four mounts Sunday.

The Albarado slump further proves that even the best go through slow times. Earlier at the meet, Pat Day lost with 27 straight mounts, including 15 favorites.

Despite widespread speculation to the contrary, Albarado will retain the mount on Mineshaft in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park Saturday. Mineshaft was sent through his final Suburban prep Sunday at Churchill, going six furlongs in 1:13.80, including a final furlong in a swift 10.40 seconds. Regular exercise rider Annie Finney was aboard.

Trainer Neil Howard called the workout "fantastic" and said Mineshaft was "well within himself."

Plans for Flatter up in the air

Trainer Steve Penrod, who sent out Flatter to an eye-catching 5 1/4-length victory in the Friday feature, said Sunday that a stakes is next for Flatter, a 4-year-old A.P. Indy colt.

"You have to strike while the iron's hot, so I guess it's about time to try him in a stake," said Penrod. "Which one or where, I don't really know yet. But he came out of the race fine. We'll keep a close eye on him for the next week before we decide what we want to do."

Flatter, owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, was returning from a layoff of nearly 10 months when he led most of the way to win the 7 1/2-furlong, third-level allowance. The victory was his fourth in five career starts.

Flatter was laid up after suffering a cannon bone fracture in a September win at Turfway Park.

Argentine filly fits right in

The consensus among North American horsemen is that South American horses need a period of acclimation that typically takes anywhere from six months to a year.

That's why even trainer Bobby Barnett was pleasantly surprised with the way the Argentine import Flager won here Saturday in her U.S. debut, an entry-level allowance on grass. After lagging well behind the leaders, Flager, a 4-year-old by Southern Halo, exploded to win by 10 lengths.

"She's only been up here a little over 60 days," said Barnett. "Usually it takes them a while to get their act together, but this filly, nothing has seemed to bother her. She sort of seemed to be a natural."

Flager was bought in April by bloodstock agents Dan Kenny and Larry Richardson on behalf of Stony Oak Farm. Barnett, who remains stabled at Churchill during the summer, said Flager came out of the race in good shape and probably will run next at Arlington or Ellis Park.

Lukas yet again strong in Debutante

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who already has won the Debutante Stakes a co-record four times, appears to have the strongest hand coming into Friday's 103rd running of the 5 1/2-furlong race for 2-year-old fillies.

Lukas is expected to run two of the four fillies he nominated to the Grade 3 Debutante, which begins the final weekend of stakes action at the Churchill spring meet. The $250,000 Firecracker Handicap will be run Saturday, and the $150,000 Bashford Manor closes the meet Sunday.

Fashion Girl, winner of the Debutante prep here June 13, is the most likely to start among the four Lukas fillies. One of the other three - Be Gentle, Renaissance Lady, and Unbridled Beauty - probably will also start. In all, Churchill officials are looking for a field of eight or nine.

Because Friday is the Fourth of July holiday, first post will be the regular 1:15 p.m. Eastern. Fridays normally carried a twilight first post.

The Grade 2 Firecracker, a one-mile turf race for 3-year-olds and upward, should be highly competitive, with Royal Spy and Rock Slide likely to be the starting highweights in a field of maybe nine or 10.

The Grade 2 Bashford Manor, a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds, will have a heavy favorite in Cuvee, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt who won the May 26 Kentucky Breeders' Cup as the 3-5 favorite. Other probables include Beau's County, Exploit Lad, First Money, and Mr. Trieste.

Churchill announced Sunday that 11 races, instead of the normal 10, will be carded for each of the last three days of the meet.

Shortly after the meet ends, the process of tearing down the Churchill clubhouse will begin. The major demolition work essentially initiates the second phase of Churchill's $121 million renovation, which is expected to be complete by the 2005 spring meet.

Turf mile draws strong cast

The final five-day stretch of racing begins Wednesday, when three allowances (races 6, 8, and 9) are part of a solid 10-race card. The featured ninth, a $66,000, one-mile turf race, attracted several accomplished fillies, including Maliziosa, winner of the Edgewood Stakes here last spring for trainer Bill Mott.

Also Wednesday, jockey Dean Butler returns to action after being out for over three weeks. Butler, who suffered a deep shoulder bruise in a training accident here June 9, is named to ride in four races.

The finals of the weekly handicapping contest also will be held here Wednesday. At stake are $10,000 in total prize money and two spots in the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Finals in Las Vegas in January.

Wolford to enter state athletic Hall

Will Wolford, who co-owns Grade 1 winner Honor in War and several other Churchill-based horses, has been voted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, it was announced Sunday.

Wolford, who retired from a 13-year career as an All-Pro offensive lineman in the National Football League, will be inducted into the Hall Sept. 4. Wolford, 39, played for the Buffalo Bills, with whom he started in three Super Bowls at left tackle before going on to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. He currently owns the Louisville Fire, an arena football team.

Wolford has owned Thoroughbreds since early in his pro football career, with a multiple stakes winning mare, Graceful Minister, being his most accomplished runner before Honor in War captured the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on May 3.

Honor in War is nominated to the Firecracker here Saturday but is expected to run instead in the July 26 Arlington Handicap as a prep for the Arlington Million.