11/23/2007 1:00AM

Meet opens amid optimism over gaming

EmailThe brand of racing is the same. The ontrack promotions are the same. Pretty much everything about Turfway Park is the same as when the fall meet ended Oct. 4 at the Florence, Ky., track.

Yet with four-plus months of winter racing ready to begin Sunday, a new intangible is taking hold at Turfway. With Steve Beshear having been elected governor of Kentucky earlier this month, there are visions of vibrancy and prosperity at a track that has struggled mightily in recent years. Beshear has promised to try to get a casino referendum on the ballot, and if alternative gaming at state racetracks becomes a reality, Turfway would never be the same.

"This certainly gives us hope," said Turfway president Bob Elliston. "One thing that has kept us from making such progress is we lacked a champion. Now we seem to have one in the governor's office, where a lot of power is centered. When you think about the impact that new gambling laws could have on Turfway in particular, where potentially we could be investing $200 million in our facility and adding $50 million or $60 million in purses a year, it gives anybody who loves horse racing great cause for optimism."

In the meantime, as this political football gets kicked around, Turfway will proceed with its 2007 holiday meet and 2008 winter-spring meet. Separated only by the technicality of changing calendars, it's really just one long meet that runs through April 3, with the highlight, as usual, coming as winter starts to break, when the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes is run March 22.

Six stakes will be run at the holiday meet, starting Sunday with a new one that Alabama racing officials asked Turfway to host: the $55,000 Magic City Classic, a one-mile race for Alabama-breds. Originally run at the old Birmingham Race Course, and since held at other substitute sites, the Magic City drew a full field that figures to have Ack Magical, with Rodney Prescott riding, as a solid favorite.

The regular stakes schedule starts next Saturday with the Holiday Inaugural, which carries the same $50,000 purse that 13 straight Turfway stakes will offer until the March 1 John Battaglia Memorial, which goes for $100,000. Overnight purses generally average about $140,000 per card through the long winter, according to track officials.

This will be the third winter at Turfway for Polytrack, the synthetic surface that was first used here for racing in September 2005.