09/06/2004 12:00AM

Ky. Cup fall meeting highlight

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FLORENCE, Ky. - If it's the week after Labor Day, then this must be the Turfway Park fall meet. And as the prodigal sons and daughters of the Kentucky racing circuit start returning home from Saratoga and other summer destinations, the next month will be marked by reunions of old friends and colleagues and by at least one day to foreshadow the major fall meets in the state.

Although Turfway will offer a steady diet of claiming races, a racing card that will rank among the best to be offered the rest of the year in Kentucky will be staged here a week from Saturday, on Sept. 18. The 11th Kentucky Cup, a five-race series that includes four graded events and $825,000 in total purses, is the highlight of a 22-day meet that begins Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern with a rather modest 10-race card.

The Kentucky Cup Classic will be the final race before the Breeders' Cup Classic for Roses in May and probably another one or two of the top handicap horses in training. Before and after that outstanding day of racing, the fare at Turfway will pale in comparison, but Turfway officials are optimistic that fields will be full and that simulcast customers will be drawn to the Turfway signal.

"We all get excited at this time of year," said the track's president, Bob Elliston. "The fall meet generally represents our best month of racing. Our fans get a chance to see horsemen who have been competing at Saratoga and Arlington and other outstanding tracks getting their horses ready for Keeneland and Churchill Downs."

Elliston said he has heard "not one word" of negative feedback about the Turfway track surface, which underwent a $60,000 renovation during the summer. The surface long has been subjected to criticism, but "we really think we've come up with the right mix this time," said Elliston.

The meet starts with a program highlighted by an entry-level allowance for fillies and mares. Carded as the ninth of 10 races, the $26,800 route figures to have Two Hearts as one of the favorites. Two Hearts, trained by John T. Ward Jr., will be ridden by Rafael Bejarano, who is the overwhelming favorite to be the leading rider again here this fall.

Turfway's racing secretary, Rick Leigh, said per-day purses should average about $155,000, which includes all stakes and bonuses from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund.

Veteran race-caller Mike Battaglia is back for yet another meet at microphone.