11/14/2003 1:00AM

One-horse Isbell barn goes for it

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Hour after countless hour of hard work could result in one of the greatest days of Ron Isbell Jr.'s life Sunday.

Isbell is the owner, trainer, exercise rider, and groom for Gretchen's Star, an 8-year-old gelding who will start as a full-of-hope longshot in the River City Handicap at Churchill Downs. Once written off as completely finished, Gretchen's Star has earned over $300,000, almost all of it since Isbell assumed the gelding's care some four years ago.

"He's a handful, a headache, a real piece of work," said Isbell. "All the vets said he'd never run again after he bowed his tendon at the end of his 4-year-old year, but I've done a lot with him and it's paid off. He's an amazing animal."

Isbell, 42, trains his one-horse stable at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington. He said Gretchen's Star requires an inordinate amount of care, including about two hours a day in a turn-out paddock and special attention to the old injury.

Gretchen's Star, a winner of 20 career starts, captured a $60,000 allowance at Keeneland in his last start. "We beat Mystery Giver and some other nice horses there," said Isbell. "He loves Churchill, so we're coming over there to win. He's already done a lot more than anybody expected, so it'd be great if we could win Sunday."

It's been done before

If Rick Pitino is both presenter and recipient of the winner's trophy following the River City, in which he will run Della Francesca, it won't be the first time such a scenario has unfolded at Churchill.

The 1994 Breeders' Cup Distaff resulted in Leonard Lavin receiving the trophy from himself. Lavin, as chairman of the race sponsor, Alberto VO5, had just watched his mare One Dreamer win the BC Distaff in a 47-1 shocker.

Dr. Kashnikow attempts three-peat

An upset in the River City by Dr. Kashnikow would make him just the second horse in Churchill history to win the same stakes three years in a row.

Chorwon, winner of the Louisville Handicap from 1997-99, is the first and only horse to do it.

Forster on fire

Grant Forster, who shipped about a dozen horses into the Trackside training center last month from Emerald Downs, won his third race in a five-day span when Roadside-attraction rallied to win the third race Friday.

"We had a rough few weeks, but things are looking up now," said Forster, who went winless at Keeneland.

Ramsey's reign in jeopardy

Ken and Sarah Ramsey have won or tied for a record seven straight owners' titles at Churchill Downs, but the Nicholasville, Ky., couple had better start pedaling faster if they want to make it eight.

Through Thursday, and with 15 of 27 fall programs in the books, the Ramseys had won with just 2 of their first 20 starters. WinStar Farm, with four wins, led the standings, followed by Buckram Oak Farm and Janelle Grum with three each.

Now that's a weak field

How weak was the second race here Thursday? So weak that a maiden, Casa Nekia, was the 8-5 second choice despite the $15,000 claiming race being open to 2-year-old fillies who had never won two races.

Casa Nekia rallied to defeat five rivals, giving jockey Jose Delgado his first of two winners on the card.

* Delgado suffered what was initially diagnosed as a twisted left knee after being thrown by his scheduled mount, City Diamond, before the first race Friday. Delgado was taken to nearby Caritas Medical Center for further observation. The horse was scratched.

* Megahertz, Bien Nicole, and Quick Tip are the probable favorites for the lone stakes here next weekend, the $150,000 Cardinal Handicap on Saturday. A sizable field of fillies and mares is expected for the Grade 3, 1 1/8-mile grass race.

* Besides Megahertz for the Cardinal and Medaglia d'Oro for the Nov. 28 Clark Handicap, trainer Bobby Frankel has told Churchill officials he plans to run Sightseek, the beaten odds-on favorite in the BC Distaff last month, in the Falls City Handicap on Nov. 27. Sightseek would be favored over the top local hope, Take Charge Lady.