04/16/2008 12:00AM

Keeneland handle down 17 percent


LEXINGTON, Ky. - As the second half of the 16-day Keeneland spring meet got under way Wednesday, officials were hoping to reverse an unsettling business trend established during the first eight days of the meet.

Despite a marginal rise in ontrack attendance, the average ontrack handle was down 12 percent, while all-sources handle was down 17 percent.

Through Sunday, the all-sources handle was averaging $10,348,979, off substantially from the $12,469,609 that was averaged through the corresponding period at the 2007 spring meet, when only seven days were run (one Sunday was dark last year because it was Easter).

Ontrack attendance has averaged 14,597, up 4 percent over last spring, but the average ontrack handle (which includes simulcast imports) of $1,671,327 is well off the nearly $1.9 million that was averaged during the same time frame last spring.

It must be noted that several business records, including an average all-sources handle of more than $10.5 million, were set last spring, which marked the first spring meet with Polytrack as the main racing surface (the 2006 fall meet was the first overall for Polytrack). Trying to match business following a record meet is always difficult, Keeneland spokesman Jim Williams said.

"We're comparing the numbers against just a fantastic spring last year," he said. "Quite frankly, we've scrutinized our numbers very closely and are trying to find valid reasons for such a steep decline. We know that the general economy is troublesome, and that has to be a big factor. We also know from our own simulcasting experience [imports] that we've been down about 10 percent since last fall."

Williams acknowledged that anecdotal tales abound in regard to how some bettors have scaled back their wagering because of unfamiliarity with, or a dislike for, synthetic surfaces, but added that if those are true, then why were records set last spring?

"We're truly at a loss to give a full explanation," he said. "We've looked closely at the quality of racing and believe it's been top-notch. We've noted that there is a difference in scheduling in California now that eliminates one day a week [Wednesday], and obviously they're a major simulcast market for us. But overall, this really has us back on our heels."

Dominican returns after 8 1/2-month layoff

No, Silverton Hill Farms and Darrin Miller did not make a deal with the devil - although it might look that way.

The owner-trainer team was on top of the racing world last April after Dominican won a four-horse photo to capture the Blue Grass Stakes. One year and three races later, Dominican hasn't won again, compromised in large part by what Miller described as "a respiratory, allergy kind of thing."

Fortunately for Silverton Hill and Miller, redemption and renewal are distinct possibilities this weekend. Not only will Dominican make his first start in 8 1/2 months in the eighth race Friday, a tough $62,000 turf allowance, but St. Joe will carry the stable's hopes the following afternoon in the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes.

Dominican, said Miller, "set sort of a tough precedent for himself" by winning the Blue Grass over the eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and others. Afterward, Dominican was 11th in the Derby, third in the Round Table at Arlington, and sixth in the West Virginia Derby before going to the shelf.

Enduring the disappointment since the Blue Grass euphoria has proven difficult, Miller conceded, "but I do think he's a nice horse."

"The time off has really been good for him," Miller said. "He's done very well in the mornings, and we're excited to get him back to the races."

Meanwhile, St. Joe figures as a longshot in the Lexington, but the colt has run sensationally in both of his races over the Keeneland Polytrack, taking a maiden race last fall and an entry-level allowance here opening day, April 4. The 1 1/16-mile Lexington may test the colt's distance limitations, "but if he's going to stretch out his speed, this is the place for us to try it," Miller said. "I doubt if we'd try him back in the Derby if he won. It was just good to see him win opening day and put his two disappointing races at Gulfstream behind us," a reference to two poor efforts this winter in Florida.

St. Joe, with Miguel Mena to ride, is one of 11 3-year-olds entered in the Lexington.

Alwajeeha wins Appalachian; pick six pays $18K

Alwajeeha, scratched from an allowance race last week, made trainer Kiaran McLaughlin look awfully smart when she outnodded two other fillies Wednesday in winning the Grade 3, $125,000 Appalachian Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Owned by Shadwell Stable and ridden by John Velazquez, Alwajeeha returned $11.80 after making a sweeping move on the final turn of the one-mile turf race and outlasting Sweepstake and I Lost My Choo.

Through Wednesday, McLauglin had sent out three winners - all in stakes - from 20 starters at the meet. He also won the Ashland with Little Belle and the Lafayette with Keep Laughing.

Alwajeeha returned the second-highest win mutuel in a pick six that finally was hit after not having been won since the meet began April 4; only A.P. Fortune ($17), winner of the last race, paid more. The day started with a track-record carryover of $307,049, and another $733,901 was bet into it Wednesday. Each of the 41 winning $2 tickets paid $18,342.20, with 5 of 6 returning $113.80. The winning numbers were 7-1-3-7-9-5.

Showing Up calls it a career

Showing Up, winner of the Lexington two years ago and a winner in 7 of 10 career starts, has been retired, trainer Barclay Tagg said Wednesday. The 5-year-old horse, owned by the Lael Stables, earned more than $1.6 million, much of it after switching to the grass during his 3-year-old season. He made his last start more than a year ago when finishing second in the Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland, then suffered a torn suspensory ligament in his left foreleg while training in late May.

"I trained him for a while, trying to bring him back, but we decided it'd be better to go ahead and retire him," Tagg said.

Also, Tagg said Elysium Fields, the runner-up in the Fountain of Youth in February, has been taken out of training "for about a month."

"He strained himself a little, no big deal," Tagg said.

Tagg already had declared the colt off the Derby trail following a poor performance in the March 29 Florida Derby.

Strong card set for Saturday

Besides the Lexington (race 9), two other six-figure stakes are carded here Saturday.

The $100,000 Fort Harrod (race 6), a 1 5/8-mile Polytrack race, drew a field of eight seasoned veterans, including Save Big Money, Nolan's Cat, Rathor, Successful Affair, and Jade's Revenge.

The $100,000 Giant's Causeway (race 8), a 5 1/2-furlong turf race, got nine fillies and mares, with Danceroftherealm, a winner of her last three starts, one of the major contenders.

* Florent Geroux, a 21-year-old Frenchman whose attempt to launch a riding career in Kentucky was rudely interrupted on opening day of the 2007 Keeneland fall meet when he suffered a broken wrist in a spill, won the first race Wednesday when Monteleone ($13.20) held off longshot Lost Trail. After recovering from his injury, Geroux returned to riding in late March at Turfway Park.