10/28/2004 11:00PM

Just one more time

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Mark Hoard/CDSN
Churchill's major renovation project is scheduled to be completed before next April.

Finally, some light at the end of the dusty tunnel. The 21-day meet that gets under way Sunday at Churchill Downs is the last time fans and horsemen will be inconvenienced by the track's massive renovation project, one that started nearly three years ago but is scheduled for completion before the 2005 spring meet begins next April.

This welcome news should provide a happy backdrop for what has remained a constant throughout the years of rebuilding at Churchill: quality racing. With 12 stakes - beginning with the Ack Ack Handicap, headed by Fire Slam, on the opening-day program - and an even sharper focus on providing bettors with bigger fields, Churchill will conduct a meet that promises to be well received by simulcast players throughout North America.

"We're very excited about this being our last meet during the reconstruction," said Churchill spokesman John Asher. "We also think fans will be happy about how we are now carding as many as 14 horses in dirt races. Obviously the bigger the field, the more fans like it, and we're always trying to give our players what they want."

The new 14-horse races coincide with a new promotion that should attract considerable interest. On the sixth race every day, Churchill is offering a guaranteed superfecta pool of $100,000 on weekends and $50,000 on weekdays. Whenever possible, 14 horses will be carded for the sixth race.

"For several reasons, our fall meet traditionally has drawn bigger fields than in the spring, so we thought this would be a good time to try something like this," said Asher. "The track is big enough so that there are no safety issues. It should be fun and interesting."

As for the stakes schedule, the emphasis, as usual, is on closing weekend, when four graded races with national impact will be run: the Falls City on Nov. 25, the Clark Handicap on Nov. 26, and the twin 2-year-old features, the Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod, on Nov. 27. Those races anchor a schedule that begins Sunday with the $150,000 Ack Ack for 3-year-olds and upward.

The Grade 3 Ack Ack, contested at the infrequently run distance of 7 1/2 furlongs, figures to have Fire Slam as the favorite for jockey Pat Day and trainer David Carroll. Fire Slam, a 3-year-old Grand Slam colt owned by Stan Fulton, won three straight stakes before finishing sixth in his last start, the Aug. 28 King's Bishop at Saratoga.

Fire Slam, scratched earlier this month from the Phoenix Stakes when Keeneland came up sloppy, has been on edge in his morning training, having posted a five-furlong work in 59.20 seconds Monday.

"We're looking for a sharp performance in the Ack Ack," said Carroll. "We'll see where we are with him after this."

Day, the perennial riding king who was supplanted atop the standings last spring by upstart Rafael Bejarano, will be riding regularly at a Churchill meet for the 50th straight time, having begun here at the 1980 spring meet.

Among the six rivals facing Day and Fire Slam is Cappuchino, an inconsistent but capable 5-year-old who won the Ack Ack last year at 8-1. Cappuchino is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the northern California icon who has brought a 16-horse string here this fall.

Other trainers who normally are not represented here but have a string at Churchill or at nearby Trackside include Mike Stidham, Jonathan Sheppard, George Weaver, Steve Hobby, and Grant Hofmans.

Also in the Ack Ack are Private Horde, a winner of more than $600,000 for trainer Joe Cain; Sir Cherokee, the 2003 Arkansas Derby winner, who has posted several bullet workouts on the comeback trail, having last raced in early June; Battle Won, a recent winner of back-to-back turf sprint stakes; Slate Run, a former $15,000 claimer who earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure in a recent allowance win at Keeneland; and Sterling Gold, claimed for $100,000 from his last start by owner Billy Hays.

Churchill will hold the lone Tuesday program of the meet on Election Day.

Fall meet highlights

DateRacePurse
Sun. Nov. 7Churchill Downs Distaff (G2)$200,000
Sat. Nov. 13Mrs. Revere (G2)150,000
Thurs. Nov. 25Falls City Handicap (G2)300,000
Sat. Nov. 26Clark Handicap (G2)500,000
Sun. Nov. 27Golden Rod (G2)200,000
 Kentucky Jockey Club (G2)200,000