05/25/2004 11:00PM

Morgan's return from injury no sure thing

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jockey Mike Morgan, injured in a four-horse spill last Sunday at Churchill Downs, was released from Norton Audubon Hospital on Tuesday. A doctor's evaluation revealed one cracked vertebra and one "trapped" vertebra, the rider said.

Morgan and three other jockeys - Rafael Bejarano, Daniel Coa, and Joe Deegan - were thrown to the track when their mounts fell in Sunday's 10th race, a one-mile maiden-claiming race. Coa and Deegan were both evaluated at Louisville hospitals and released Sunday evening. Bejarano did not require medical treatment after the accident.

Morgan, 50, who missed time after he was found to have cancer in his tongue and lymph nodes in 1995, now has another difficult recovery ahead of him. His doctors will examine him again in two weeks to determine if he needs surgery to have a plate attached to his vertebrae.

He said he did not know how long his recovery might take, or if he would be able to return to riding.

"I'll let the doctors figure out that one," he said.

Morgan feels lucky to have not been injured worse. He said he feared he was paralyzed immediately after the spill. "I couldn't do anything but blink my eyes" for four or five minutes, he said.

Bejarano and Deegan rode Wednesday at Churchill Downs. Coa came out of the spill all right, agent Danny Gargan said, and is shifting his tack to Monmouth Park when its meet begins Saturday.

Reinstedler has two for Mint Julep

Three Grade 3 stakes are scheduled at Churchill for Memorial Day weekend: the Early Times Mint Julep on Saturday, the Dogwood Breeders' Cup on Sunday, and the Louisville Handicap on Monday.

Donnie Richardson, Churchill's senior vice president of racing, expects no more than seven or eight runners for each race. Aud, Eternal Melody, Sand Springs, and Shaconage are likely starters for the Mint Julep. Ender's Sister, Miss Coronado, Oneofacat, and Stellar Jayne are expected to headline the Dogwood. Art Variety, Ballingarry, Kim Loves Bucky, Quest Star, and Silverfoot are probable starters for the Louisville Handicap. Spruce Hero is a possibility for that race, Richardson said.

Trainer Tony Reinstedler has strength in numbers in the $150,000 Mint Julep. He said he was likely to run graded stakes winners Aud and Sand Springs.

Aud and Sand Springs have styles that complement each other. Aud is a deep closer who is at her best when there is a fast pace, something that Sand Springs, a free-running speed horse, is sure to provide.

Reinstedler had considered sending Sand Springs to Texas for a race, but quarantine issues caused by an outbreak of vesicular stomatitis led him to keep her at Churchill. He was pleased with her first start of the year, a fourth-place finish behind Shaconage in the Argent Mortgage on Derby Day. "She needed that race," he said.

Aud also ran Derby Day, but in New York instead of Kentucky. She rallied to finish second to Dedication in the Grade 3 Beaugay Handicap.

Although both horses are owned by Willmott Stables, they will race uncoupled in the Mint Julep.

Champali tunes up for stakes

Champali ($2.80) was an easy winner of Wednesday's second race, a $66,800 allowance. Uncontested early when setting fractions of 23.41 seconds and 46.28, he maintained a comfortable advantage through the stretch over runner-up Premier Performer. He won by 1 1/4 lengths under confident handling from Pat Day, running 6 1/2 furlongs over a sloppy track in 1:16.36.

Trainer Greg Foley said he would nominate Champali to the June 19 Aristides Handicap and the July 3 Firecracker. The Aristides is a $150,000 six-furlong race, and the Firecracker is a mile turf race with a $250,000 purse. Champali finished fourth in an allowance in his lone grass race last fall.

* Wednesday's races, drawn with short fields, became even shorter following heavy rain Tuesday and Wednesday. The three scheduled turf races were moved to a muddy main track. Two of those races fell apart. The fourth race originally had seven horses before being scratched down to a four-horse field. The eighth race was reduced to three-horse field from a group of eight.