04/27/2005 11:00PM

A new day at the Downs

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Horsephotos
The twin spires are one of the few unchanged features in a $121 million renovation at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Every year, without fail, an unmistakable buzz envelops opening day of the Churchill Downs spring meet. After all, the Kentucky Derby is just one week away, and that alone is sufficient reason for a racing fan to loom boldly at the entrance gates.

This year, however, there has been a heightened sense of anticipation as opening day has approached: a brand new Churchill Downs, not to mention the prospect of yet another riveting Derby, will greet fans and horsemen when the first of 52 spring dates is run here Saturday.

"This is what everyone has been waiting for," said Churchill president Steve Sexton. "This is where countless hours of planning and worry and hard work have taken us."

Although fans may initially be dazzled by the $121 million renovation, it is probably safe to assume that they eventually will be able to focus on the racing product, which culminates Saturday with the 81st running of the $100,000 Derby Trial, a one-mile race that more frequently serves as a prep for the Preakness than the Derby. The Trial, the last of 11 races on an opener that begins at 12:45 p.m., will have Don't Get Mad, with Gary Stevens riding, as the favorite in a field of eight 3-year-olds.

The Trial is the first of 15 stakes to be run here leading up to next Saturday's 131st Kentucky Derby, and the first of 32 stakes that will be run at a 52-day meet, which ends July 10. The post-Derby segment of the meet will hit its peak June 18, when six stakes will be run, most notably the Grade 1, $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap.

To accommodate ESPN programming, the Trial is scheduled for 5:40 p.m., a time that accounts for its unusually late placement on the Saturday program. The one-hour broadcast begins at 5 p.m. and also will include a preview of top contenders for the Derby.

The Trial looks like a race that Don't Get Mad should win, assuming he returns to top form. But if Don't Get Mad happens to throw in a clunker, as he did three weeks ago in the Santa Anita Derby, the Trial could fall any number of ways, including to Miracle Man, who makes his stakes debut after opening his career with three straight wins, or to Vicarage, whose best effort resulted in a runner-up finish behind High Limit in the March 12 Louisiana Derby.

Trainer John Hennig said Miracle Man will be getting a legitimate test after proving clearly best in a recent allowance sprint at Keeneland. Cornelio Velasquez, who has been aboard the colt for every start, will be flown in from New York to ride him again.

"Cornelio came in for opening day at Keeneland primarily to ride our colt," said Hennig. "He's got a very high opinion of him, and that in itself is encouraging to us."

The Derby Trial field also includes Big Top Cat and Santana Springs, both of whom have had the misfortune this spring of facing the unbeaten and highly regarded 3-year-old speedster Lost in the Fog. Big Top Cat ran third behind Lost in the Fog in the Bay Shore, while Santana Springs ran second behind him in the Sunshine Millions Dash and fourth behind him in the Swale.

The rest of the Derby Trial field is Ultimate, Gallardo, and Crimson Stag.

Four allowances (races 5, 8, 9, 10) are also carded for Saturday, including a $64,500 classified turf allowance that directly precedes the Trial. Trade Fair, trained by Bobby Frankel, and Gigawatt, trained by Steve Flint, rank among the top contenders in an exceedingly deep field.

A steady rain fell here Thursday afternoon, and more rain was forecast for Friday and early Saturday, meaning an off track was highly possible for opening day, when high temperatures are supposed to be in the low 60's.

TVG workout show starts Saturday

Television Games Network will telecast the first segment of its annual "The Works" series on Saturday. The half-hour broadcasts, which focus on workouts by Derby and Oaks contenders, will air daily through Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern.

Todd Schrupp will anchor the show from Churchill, joined by Frank Lyons and Tom Amoss as analysts. Woodford Reserve is the new signature sponsor for the shows.

* Jockey Casey Fusilier is a recent arrival from the Southern California circuit. Randy Romero II, son of the retired jockey, will be his agent. Fusilier, 18, began his career in his native Louisiana in late 2002. He won with 15 of 104 mounts at the recently ended Santa Anita meet.

* A full day of racing will be held here Tuesday, and it will be the only Tuesday card of the spring meet. The date essentially replaces the Sunday after Derby, when Churchill always is dark for live racing.

* A 72-hour draw schedule starts Saturday, when entries for the Tuesday card will be drawn. The schedule includes drawing Tuesday for Friday's Oaks card, and Wednesday for Saturday's Derby card. Churchill reverts to a 48-hour draw shortly after the Derby.

Meet highlights

DateRacePurse
May 6Kentucky Oaks (G1)$500,000
 Louisville BC Handicap (G2)300,000
May 7Kentucky Derby (G1)2,000,000
 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1)400,000
 Humana Distaff (G1)250,000
 Churchill Downs Handicap (G2)200,000
June 18Stephen Foster Handicap (G1)750,0000
 Fleur de Lis Handicap (G2)300,000
July 4Firecracker BC Handicap (G2)250,000