08/21/2003 11:00PM

New set-up gives Nafzger barn a boost

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Carl Nafzger estimates that it has been eight or 10 years since he last missed a summer of racing at Saratoga. One of the primary reasons for staying home in Louisville this year, said Nafzger, was "because I felt we didn't have enough Grade 1 or Grade 2 horses to justify making the trip."

Actually, there may have been a more compelling reason. "We just needed to get our organization back together again," he said. "When things go bad, you've got to start stacking your dominoes. Then when you get them all lined up again, you knock the first one over and z-z-z-z-z, there they all go."

Indeed, the Nafzger barn had been in a prolonged slump since his horses won at a high percentage at the 2002 Churchill Downs fall meet. Nafzger endured a woeful meet at Gulfstream, winning just one race from some 60 starts, then fared only marginally better at the Keeneland and Churchill spring meets. As the Churchill meet wound down, he and his longtime assistant, Ian Wilkes, agreed that instead of shipping strings to Saratoga or Arlington Park, they would focus on something different.

Bill Wall, owner of Skylight Training Center, located some 25 miles east of Louisville, had a 26-stall barn constructed on the property, where a six-furlong track and other training amenities long have been used by area horsemen. Nafzger signed a lease with a 10-year option and moved his horses into the newly built Skylight barn while also maintaining a full barn at Churchill, where training hours have been cut back since early July because of the massive reconstruction project there.

Nafzger said he and Wilkes wanted to evaluate how their new set-up would work, and after several weeks, "We love it," Nafzger said.

The benefits are apparent in the latest statistics at Ellis Park, the Henderson, Ky., track where live racing on the Kentucky circuit has been staged since July 9. Through Thursday, Nafzger leads the trainers' earnings list with nearly $222,000. From 26 starts, his horses had won nine races, the most notable a win by Lead Story in the July 12 HBPA Handicap.

Nafzger said he firmly believes the benefits of a satellite training facility will continue to show through the end of this year.

"The horses love it out here," he said Thursday from Skylight. "Some of our older horses, like Westerly Breeze and Lead Story, they like to run off of here. It gives us more time with our babies. We can freshen any of them up when we want. It's added a lot of dimensions to our organization, and it's also keeping me from being on the road all the time."

Nafzger said he was never fazed by the slump and that he is accustomed to the ebbs and flows of his profession. "The main things that win races is structure and development," he said. "All your top trainers, they have great management skills. We're getting into the position that will allow us to do what's right by our horses and our clients. All we're doing is looking to operate within the framework that will allow us to optimize whatever success can be ours."

Hammond tops in wins

While Nafzger leads the Ellis earnings list, Kim Hammond leads in wins. Through Thursday, and with just nine of 41 programs remaining at the meet, Hammond had won 14 races and appears highly likely to become the first female to win a training title at Ellis.

Based primarily at Fairmount Park near St. Louis, Hammond has about 10 horses stabled at Ellis. After sending out two winners Thursday, Hammond held a five-win lead over Nafzger and Joe Cain atop the standings.

Bejarano leads jockey standings

The five-year reign of Jon Court is over. It may not be a mathematical certainty yet, but Rafael Bejarano is well on his way to being the first jockey other than Court to top the jockey standings since 1997. Through Thursday, after riding a career-high five winners on a 10-race card, Bejarano had 59 wins to Court's 29.

Court said earlier this month that he will always cherish the Ellis record he set by winning five straight titles (1998-2002) and that he is happy for Bejarano, whom he called "a super-nice young man."

Offtrack business booming

While ontrack figures at Ellis have remained basically static from last year, a surge in offtrack business will result in all-time records by the time the meet ends Sept. 1.

According to racing secretary Doug Bredar, offtrack betting on Ellis has increased by more than 30 percent over last year. "By the end of the meet, that will mean $30 million to $35 million more in gross handle," Bredar said.

Field size at Ellis has averaged about 9.4 starters per race, which Bredar believes has been an immeasurable aid in luring simulcast players to the Ellis signal.

Despite the major increases, purses were not raised during the Ellis meet because of a shortfall in off-season simulcasting revenue and a major deficit stemming from overpayment of purses last year. Per-day purses will average about $185,000, said Bredar.