06/18/2004 12:00AM

Milestone for an old warrior

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This being the 21st century, and in consideration of the purse structures at major racing circuits around North America, finding a horse who has earned $500,000 isn't all that difficult. But finding one who finally reaches the half-million dollar mark in his 68th career start is a little more elusive.

Surpassing the half-million mark after such an exhaustive spell is what a hard-hitting 8-year-old named Winning Connection did Thursday at Churchill Downs when he rallied to win the fourth race, a $20,000 claiming race. Owned by 46-year-old Louisville automobile dealer Billy Hays and trained by Joe Woodard, Winning Connection began fading after tracking the early pace and was seemingly beaten as the field began straightening for home in the one-mile race.

"I thought we were in big trouble," said Woodard.

But summoning a brand of courage that Woodard said "really makes you appreciate a horse like him," Winning Connection passed heavily favored Battledar inside the eighth pole en route to an inspiring 2 1/2-length triumph, the 21st of his lengthy career. The $16,740 winner's share put his bankroll at $511,937.

Winning Connection, a gelding by Pleasant Colony, was bred by William Kilroy and began his career in July 1998 in New York with trainer Shug McGaughey. He then went through the barns of five more trainers before finally being claimed at Churchill for $75,000 in June 2001 by Gus Goldsmith, who outshook Hays and Woodard in the postrace pill-pull. Not to go away empty-handed, Hays then made Goldsmith a private offer that was accepted.

Winning Connection now has won seven times for Hays, who has become a perennial leading owner at River Downs while keeping his better stock at Churchill.

As for Winning Connection, Woodard is going to keep letting the old guy do his thing.

"He's starting to get old, and we don't want to get too ambitious with him," he said, so the horse will likely stay racing at the same level. "He always gives a good effort, and when you see one trying that hard for you, it definitely gives you a great feeling."

Guidry faces tough decision

Jockey Mark Guidry is torn between two places. A 26-year journeyman who is enjoying a highly productive meet, Guidry, a winner of more than 4,500 races, is trying to decide whether to move his tack to Ellis Park or Saratoga after the Churchill meet ends July 5.

"Mark knows it probably would be better for business to go to Saratoga, but he wants to stay close to his family here in Louisville, and riding at Ellis would let him do that," said Guidry's agent, Terry Miller.

Guidry, who was not suspended for his role in the disqualification of his mount, Serra Retreat, from first place in the second race Wednesday, is in a three-way battle with Cornelio Velasquez and Robby Albarado for third place in the meet standings. Rafael Bejarano is first and Pat Day is second.

* In honor of Father's Day, random drawings will be held throughout the afternoon for a trip to Cancun and many other prizes. More information is available by calling (502) 636-4400.

* Apprentice Jordan Charkoudian will ride her first race in the 10th race Sunday aboard Untamed for trainer George McCarty. Charkoudian, 26, has galloped horses for Frankie Brothers over the last couple years.

- additional reporting by Byron King