08/07/2002 11:00PM

Interest Only gets a shot at big girls

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HENDERSON, Ky. - The hottest trainer through the first half of the Ellis meet was Steve Flint, who won with seven of his first 12 starters.

Flint will try to improve on that percentage Saturday when he runs Interest Only against more seasoned fillies and mares, including defending champion Miss Seffens, in the supporting feature, the $125,000 Ellis Park Breeders' Cup Stakes.

Interest Only, owned by Flint's primary client, the Klein family of Louisville, is still eligible for allowance races but "she's got a lot of talent and a lot of speed, and we figured we'd give her a chance," said Flint.

Miss Seffens, a winner of over $500,000, has raced sparingly since last fall and is seeking the first win of her 5-year-old season. Last year, Miss Seffens was sensational in winning the six-furlong Ellis BC in 1:09.35.

Other starters for the Ellis BC, which is carded as the eighth of 11 races, drew a field of 10.

Decent weather, handle

So far, so good. With the 41-day Ellis Park meet having hit its midway point Wednesday, general manager Paul Kuerzi said he is satisfied with how fans have responded.

"Considering everything, it's been a decent meet for us," said Kuerzi, now in his fourth year as the on-site head at Ellis, which has been owned by Churchill Downs Inc. since 1998. "Last week was brutal because of the weather, but I think we might see a favorable backlash this week with how nice it is now."

Although Ellis long has been synonymous with stifling heat, last week was extraordinarily hot and humid, with the heat index registering well over 100 degrees each day. But a cool front recently came through western Kentucky, and the forecast for the Gardenia Handicap program Saturday calls for more good weather.

Kuerzi reported that all-sources wagering on Ellis is averaging just over $2.9 million daily, a figure that is less than 1 percent behind corresponding numbers last year. Attendance is up 6.5 percent while handle is basically even. Daily average purses are on schedule to exceed $200,000.

Kuerzi said he expects that Gardenia Day will be one of the three best-attended days of the meet, with a crowd of 5,000 to 6,000 likely. On July 27, when the track gave away Jon Court bobblehead dolls, "we had an actual turnstile count of 6,300, but some of those were spinners," said Kuerzi.

The other top draw is always Labor Day, said Kuerzi. "It's the end of the summer, closing day of the meet, and a lot of people have made it a tradition," he said.

Confidence builder

The Gardenia cannot match the prestige of the races where trainer Elliott Walden currently has his best horses - Saratoga. But that doesn't mean Happily Unbridled won't resurface soon in top-class races.

"She's a bubble horse," said Walden. "I took her to Belmont and ran her in the [Grade 1 Ogden Phipps in June], and the race didn't set up well for her. She'd never been on the lead in her life. I wouldn't be afraid to forgive that race and try those top horses again this fall."

By running Happily Unbridled in the Gardenia off a victory in the local prep, the July 13 HBPA Handicap, Walden said he was trying to raise Happily Unbridled's confidence.

"I was pleased with the way she fought" in her narrow win in the HBPA, Walden said. "Hopefully another good race Saturday will get her going again, and she'll be a factor in some of the bigger races this fall."

Happily Unbridled, a 4-year-old who was purchased earlier this year by WinStar Farm, figures as one of the Gardenia favorites, along with Minister's Baby and Caressing.

Court eyes fifth title

It appears that Jon Court is well on his way to a record fifth straight riding title at Ellis.

Through Wednesday, Court had ridden 35 winners, 14 more than his closest pursuer, Willie Martinez. Court's business is as strong as ever, as he rides a steady diet of betting favorites here.

With a fifth straight title, Court would break a tie with Mike McDowell for the all-time Ellis record. McDowell won four straight meets, 1984-87.

Butler finds new home

The newcomer who has made the greatest impact so far this meet is jockey Dean Butler, who enjoys Kentucky so much that he said he plans to stay indefinitely. Butler, a nine-year veteran who has previously was based in New Jersey, is sixth in the standings with 14 wins.

"I love it here," said Butler, 31. "I've already gotten a lot of opportunities. I want to make this place my home."

Butler, whose top clients in New Jersey were Charlie Harvatt and Kevin Sleeter, said he wanted to pick up steam at Ellis before proceeding to Turfway Park in September and the tougher meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs in the fall. He said he will ride at Turfway through the four-month winter meet.

Bad timing

The injuries that Greta Kuntzweiler and Jimmy Lopez suffered at the Churchill Downs spring meet clearly have had an effect on their business, even though both jockeys recovered in time for the Ellis meet, which began July 10.

Through last weekend, Lopez had won with just 6 of 99 mounts, and Kuntzweiler was 2 for 43.

Considering how both carried terrific momentum into the Churchill meet - Lopez was the leading rider at Oaklawn Park and Kuntzweiler the leading rider at Turfway - their mediocre statistics at this meet illustrate how detrimental an untimely injury can be.

* Danielle Chubb not only is one of the few female jockey agents in Kentucky, but she also is the only agent who can say she has Ellis covered from A to Z. Chubb handles business for the first and last jockeys on the Ellis jockey roster: Fabio Arguello Jr. and Eddie Zuniga.