10/13/2006 12:00AM

Midnight Lute finishes fast in Perryville


LEXINGTON, Ky. - In a field packed with stakes-proven 3-year-olds, a colt making his stakes debut cruised to victory Friday in the $200,000 Perryville Stakes at Keeneland. Midnight Lute captured the Grade 3 race in frighteningly easy fashion, leaving his trainer, Bob Baffert, to wonder what might lay ahead.

"I don't know what I'm going to do next with this horse," said Baffert. "All I know is we're going to give him a lot of love."

Midnight Lute, ridden by Victor Espinoza, rallied from seventh on a Polytrack surface that continues to produce come-from-behind winners, overtaking Lewis Michael at the furlong pole and proceeding to a 4 3/4-length score, giving him 3 wins from 4 career starts. He returned $16.20 as fifth choice in a field of 11.

Under sunny skies, and with temperatures reaching only into the high 50's, Midnight Lute settled in mid-pack early before angling out wide for the drive. Lewis Michael, a 7-1 shot who had made a bold move to wrest command from three tiring front-runners, was helpless to fend off the winner's late run but still finished three lengths clear of Court Folly, who rallied from last to get third by a head over the 5-2 favorite, High Finance.

Praying for Cash was fifth, followed by Sailors Sunset, Reigning Court, Mach Ride, Latent Heat, Likely, and Fabled.

Midnight Lute, a Real Quiet colt owned in partnership by Mike Pegram and the Watson and Weitman Performances LLC, finished the Beard Course distance of seven furlongs and 184 feet in a swift 1:24.38.

Baffert said he and Pegram always have been high on Midnight Lute, who won his lone start at 2 at Del Mar, then raced twice this summer at Del Mar, knocking out his first allowance condition in the second of those races.

"We always thought we had a monster from day one," said Baffert. "He had throat problems that we got healed up, and he was doing really good coming into this. Victor rode him perfectly. It was one of those days when everything worked out."

Meet off to encouraging start

With nearly half the 17-day meet in the books after the conclusion of the Sunday program, Keeneland officials are ecstatic with the field size and quality of racing they have staged during this first season with the new Polytrack surface.

Not including the Saturday and Sunday cards - when the number of horses entered in the 19 combined races was 203, not counting exclusions and prior to scratches being announced - the average field size has been 9.98 per race, or up slightly from the 9.77 averaged during the same opening period at the 2005 fall meet. All-sources handle (through Thursday) has averaged $7,981,480, up 2 percent over corresponding dates from last year.

Moreover, the depth in the stakes that have been run so far has been beyond reproach. This weekend alone, the Perryville, First Lady, and Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup all attracted what arguably were their best fields in years.

"Obviously we're extremely thrilled with how the horsemen have responded," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman. "During the summer, I was kind of wary about how committed they were to running here this fall. They were saying they were going to come, but I honestly got the feeling they weren't quite sure about the Polytrack. But obviously things couldn't have gone much better than they have so far."

Huffman said field size generally is stronger in the fall than in the spring. The average at the 2006 spring meet, the last one with the old dirt track, was 8.09.

Raven Run tops week's stakes

Four stakes will be run here next week, with the highlight coming next Saturday with the Grade 2, $300,000 Raven Run for 3-year-old fillies. Notables among the 39 nominees include Diplomat Lady, Miraculous Miss, Misty Rosette, and Wild Fit.

The other upcoming features are the $100,000 Franklin County on Thursday; the Grade 3, $125,000 Valley View on Friday; and the $150,000 Dowager on Sunday.

Torok was adored by horsemen

The news that Kathleen Torok was killed in an automobile accident on her way to work Thursday morning sent shock waves through the Keeneland community. Torok, who as an administrative assistant handled hospitality for the hundreds of horsemen who raced at Keeneland, was "absolutely loved by the horsemen because she was such a wonderful person," said Rogers Beasley, director of racing.

"We are sad beyond words," said Keeneland president Nick Nicholson.

A funeral service for Torok, 45, was scheduled for Monday afternoon in Lexington.

Elmore out as Ellis general manager

Brian Elmore, who served as vice president and general manager for just one season at Ellis Park, will not be rehired by Ron Geary, the new owner of the Henderson, Ky., track.

Elmore has been a longtime employee of Churchill Downs Inc., which owned Ellis until Geary bought the track this fall. Geary told the Evansville Courier-Press that he and Elmore "couldn't come to terms" on a new contract.

Elmore, 50, oversaw the majority of construction as Ellis rebuilt after a devastating tornado last November. He was one of nearly 30 year-round employees who were laid off or demoted to seasonal status, according to the Evansville paper.

* Three berths and first-place money of $5,000 will be at stake next Saturday when Ellis holds a qualifying tournament for the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. For more information, call (812) 435-8920.