09/04/2005 11:00PM

Opening party loses its luster

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FLORENCE, Ky. - It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, this opening of the fall meet at Turfway Park. After years of decline in the face of wicked competition from nearby riverboat casinos, Turfway finally had a genuine reason to celebrate with the unveiling of its new Polytrack surface.

But something happened on the way to the ribbon-cutting: Many of the best horses in Kentucky failed to show, and now the party has lost its edge. A lingering dispute over the new equine medication policies that take effect with the Wednesday night opening of Turfway led Louisville-based horsemen to keep their horses at home, yielding an opening-night program that is noticeably weak on numbers and quality.

"It is very frustrating that our ownership partners invested all this money and good will into Polytrack, and this medication issue arose at the same time we're prepared to open up," said Turfway president Bob Elliston. "Obviously it's something out of our control, but still it's frustrating and disappointing."

The 10-race card drew 75 entries, none from Churchill Downs or Louisville Trackside. While entries at this time of year tend to be plentiful, the Turfway racing office struggled mightily to fill races when entries were taken Sunday. Perhaps the most painful example of the paucity of the Wednesday card is the eighth race, a $7,500 maiden-claiming route that was carded with just five entries.

Several prominent Churchill horsemen declined comment regarding their conspicuous absences, although many have repeatedly said they are gravely concerned about several aspects of the emergency measure recently signed into law by Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Although the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority disseminated a letter over the weekend that said only a warning - and not a fine or suspension, as originally mandated - will be given for a first offense for a horse testing positive for banned nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, Churchill horsemen remain leery of the implications of the new rules.

The Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association sued the KHRA last week in Frankfort for an injunction against implementation of the new rules but lost its case.

"Everything needing to be said was said last week in a court of law," said Churchill-based Bernie Flint, Turfway's all-time leading trainer. "Beyond that, I don't have anything else to say."

Elliston said he discussed the situation with Flint for about an hour Sunday and was unable to determine how long the Louisville horsemen will be withholding their entries.

"I understand their position, but the one thing I don't understand is why the Louisville trainers are holding out while the guys here at Turfway and Lexington feel okay about running," said Elliston.

Dale Romans, whose huge stable normally is active at Turfway, also declined to elaborate on why none of his horses was entered Wednesday.

Other Louisville-based trainers who normally are active at Turfway but do not have a Wednesday starter include Greg Foley, Paul McGee, and Hal Wiggins.

The new Polytrack surface never has been used for racing purposes in North America. To mark the debut of the new track, which coincides with the remodeling of the paddock and winner's circle areas, Turfway is hosting a VIP reception and ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday evening while also giving away souvenir hats to the first 1,000 fans to commemorate the occasion.

As usual, the highlight of the fall stakes schedule is the Sept. 17 Kentucky Cup, a five-race

series consisting of the $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic, $175,000 Turfway Breeders' Cup, $100,000 Kentucky Cup Sprint, $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile, and $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies. The first stakes of the meet comes Saturday with the $75,000 Weekend Delight for filly and mare sprinters.

The Turfway meet runs through Oct. 6, after which Keeneland will host a 17-day fall meet.

At a glance: Turfway Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 22 days; Wednesday through Oct. 6; dark Mondays and Tuesdays

POST TIME: Weeknights, 7 p.m. Eastern; weekends, 1:10 p.m.

HIGHLIGHTS: $825,000 Kentucky Cup series on Sept. 17, highlighted by $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic and four other stakes

ADMISSIONS: Free

PARKING: General, free; valet, $3 additional

LOCATION: On Turfway Road, just off Interstate 71-75 interchange in Florence, Ky.

PHONE: (800) 733-0200 or (859) 371-0200

INTERNET: www.turfway.com