11/29/2008 1:00AM

Optimism in limited supply as meet opens


Bob Elliston has never been one to cry poor or cry wolf. But when Maryland voters recently drew a major step closer to providing relief for their racing industry through alternative gaming, Elliston, the president of Turfway Park, couldn't help feeling like the walls of doom were closing in even tighter.

"Maryland possibly joining the slots crowd leaves us even more alone on the island, so to speak," said Elliston, referring to Kentucky lawmakers refusing to consider alternative gaming for state tracks. "Not only that, but I think by next summer you are going to see the major benefits of slots in Indiana kicking in, which will have a major negative impact on the racing industry in Kentucky. Plus everyone has seen how very soft sale conditions has been affecting Keeneland," which co-owns and manages Turfway.

It is under this ever-darkening cloud of concern that Turfway will start more than four months of live racing action Sunday in Florence, Ky. Although the meet starts on something of an upbeat note, with an excellent renewal of the $50,000 Holiday Inaugural anchoring a nine-race card, it is difficult to avoid the elephant in the living room - the likely prospect of weak business trends through a long, cold winter.

"There is very serious uncertainty throughout the horse industry here in Kentucky, but we at Turfway are going to be in there every day, digging as hard as we can to try to put out the best possible product for our customers," said Elliston.

The fruits of those efforts are manifested in the Holiday Inaugural, a filly-mare race set for six furlongs on the Polytrack surface. As many as 12 can start, with the top contenders being School Girl, Vote Early, Afleet Angel, Unspoken Word, and Tequilas Dayjur.

Sunday starts the holiday meet, which runs through Dec. 31. Technically, the winter-spring meet starts Jan. 1, although there is seldom an appreciable difference from one meet to the next.

Although most of the top jockeys who ride at Churchill Downs and Keeneland go elsewhere for the winter, the colony never lacks for decent talent. Among the veterans who can be expected to contend for top-five spots in the 2008-09 standings are Leandro Goncalves, Tracy Hebert, John McKee, Orlando Mojica, Edgar Paucar, Rodney Prescott, and Bill Troilo, while Brandon Meier and Diego Rodriguez figure to make an impact as the top apprentices.