09/15/2004 11:00PM

Opening-day stakes begin run-up to festival

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The turf racing void in Kentucky - in place since Turfway Park, an all-dirt track, began its meet Sept. 8 - will be filled beginning Saturday when Kentucky Downs opens.

A six-day, 44-race meet is scheduled over the next two weeks at Kentucky Downs, the country's only all-turf racetrack, located just north of the Tennessee border near the south-central Kentucky town of Franklin. While the highlight of the meet remains the $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival on Sept. 25, Saturday's opening-day card is also one of its best, with two of the four races being $40,000 stakes.

This Saturday and next, Kentucky Downs will intersperse its races with those from Turfway Park in a common simulcast signal. For opening day, Kentucky Downs will host races 2, 4, 6, and 8 on a 14-race card dominated by the Kentucky Cup dirt series from Turfway Park. Two stakes at a mile lead the races from Kentucky Downs: the Yaqthan, for older males, and the Pleasant Temper, for fillies and mares.

Stage Call, a stakes-winning Sadler's Wells horse trained by Elliott Walden, heads the Yaqthan. Winner of the Hopemont at Keeneland in 2001, the 5-year-old Stage Call won a claiming race at Saratoga Aug. 28 in his last race, when entered for a $75,000 tag. Larry Melancon rides.

The Pleasant Temper drew a larger field than the eight-horse Yaqthan. Fifteen were entered, but the scratches of three also-eligibles on Thursday reduced the field to 12. Spring Season and Guana, a pair of fillies that last raced at Saratoga, are among the notable entrants, along with Honorable Cat and Rich Find. Rich Find won an overnight handicap at Ellis Park on Sept. 4.

In a change from last year, Kentucky Downs will not race on any Sunday this meet. Besides mixing its races with Turfway on Saturdays, Kentucky Downs has full cards scheduled for Mondays and Tuesdays. The meet ends Sept. 28.

Overnight purses are about $1,000 higher per race than last year, general manager Ryan Driscoll said. In the one change to the stakes schedule, the Kimberlite Pipe, a stakes race for 2-year-olds, was dropped after drawing short fields over the last three years.

Entries for opening day were brisk. Three of the track's four races drew full fields, and the quality of the entrants appeared to be up.

"This has become a place where people aren't afraid to run their first-stringers," Driscoll said.

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: 6 days over a two-week period, beginning Saturday and ending Sept. 28. Racing on Saturdays, Mondays, and Tuesdays.

POST TIME: Saturdays, 12:10 p.m. Central; weekdays 1:45 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: Saturdays, clubhouse is $3, outdoor viewing areas are $2; weekdays, clubhouse is $2, outdoor viewing areas are free.

HIGHLIGHT: The $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival, featuring four stakes on Saturday, Sept. 25.

LOCATION: Just north of the Tennessee state line, off Interstate-65 near Franklin, Ky. Visitors should take exit 2 off of I-65.

PHONE: (270) 586-7778

INTERNET: www. kentuckydowns.com