07/03/2003 11:00PM

Out with the old - but first a party

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sunday marks the end of an era in Churchill Downs lore.

Minutes after the final race is run Sunday evening, work crews will begin removing keepsakes and other items from the clubhouse in preparation for the demolition that eventually will lead to the most sweeping physical changes in the history of this 129-year-old facility.

Phase 2 of Churchill's $121 million renovation begins when the spring meet ends, and it will lead to some nostalgic moments here Sunday. An informal gathering of Churchill employees and fans is scheduled for after the races in the clubhouse gardens, where several track officials will raise sledgehammers in a ceremonial gesture.

"It's our 'Building on Tradition' party," said Churchill spokesman John Asher. "We'll give a salute to history, then say, 'Here we go.'"

After about 10 days of preparations, including the removal and storing of items that eventually will be sold off or housed in the new facility, demolition of the clubhouse will ensue. Asher said officials are estimating that the demolition will be complete by around the time the fall meet begins here Oct. 26.

One of the notable aspects to the demolition is how certain sections below and around the historic Twin Spires will be spared.

"The demolition will start out back, by the Silks restaurant, and kind of move its way forward and around," Asher said. "The Twin Spires are the heart and soul of our company, so the work around that area will be treated with kid gloves. The engineers involved in the project have said great pains will be taken to avoid any damage whatsoever to the infrastructure that supports them."

While the Twin Spires sections will undergo major remodeling, they are the only ones that fans will recognize by the time the entire renovation project is finished in early 2005.

"We're on a very aggressive construction schedule without much margin for error," Asher said.

During the fall meet, part of the clubhouse will remain open, but many fans will be able to use the new sky suites atop the old grandstand. Those suites are the main feature of phase 1 of the project, which began in December 2001.

Clearly, the most difficult period of transition for everyday fans will be the upcoming fall meet and the 2004 spring meet, which will be highlighted by the 130th Kentucky Derby. But after that, "a lot of the clubhouse will be ready for the 2004 fall meet, and we're confident everything will be ready for the '05 spring meet," Asher said.

For the first 5,000 paying customers Sunday, Churchill is giving away pieces of original (1895) wood left over from the 2002 refurbishing of the Twin Spires. A commemorative plaque is attached to each of the 2-inch-by-3-inch mementos, which serve as small tributes to big changes at this historic plant.

Familiar path for Asmussen

Trainer Steve Asmussen traveled this same road last year with Posse. Now another 2-year-old colt with a five-letter name will bid to go even farther.

Asmussen's latest phenom is Cuvee, the Carson City colt who will be favored Sunday in the Bashford Manor Stakes. Like Posse, Cuvee won the Kentucky Breeders' Cup, leading to a summer schedule that includes the Bashford Manor and the major 2-year-old stakes races at Saratoga.

But unlike in the case of Posse - who in recent months has blossomed into one of the top 3-year-old sprinters in North America - Asmussen hopes the next few races catapult Cuvee to the top of his division. Posse ran second in the Bashford Manor, then fourth in the Sanford at Saratoga before Asmussen took the colt out of training for a brief period.

Whereas the Kentucky Breeders' Cup had been the third career start for Posse, it was only the second for Cuvee. Asmussen believes that therein lies a subtle but significant difference in Cuvee's favor.

"We've put ourselves in a position that we feel we have a very fresh horse going into these next couple of races," Asmussen said. "We feel very good about what we're sitting on."

Cuvee is owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds, although half-interest in the colt could be sold to Spendthrift Farm following the Bashford Manor. Asmussen said he was informed that details of the sale have not been finalized because terms are partly contingent on what transpires this weekend.

Velasquez, Romans, and Ramseys title-bound

For the first time in four years, none of the races for leading jockey, trainer, or owner will come down to the final day of the spring meet.

Fittingly, the winners in all three categories this year - jockey Cornelio Velasquez, trainer Dale Romans, and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey - teamed together for a symbolic coup de grace here Thursday when Dubai Sheikh rallied to win the $51,995 feature race.

For Velasquez, the title comes in his first meet as a Churchill regular. Pat Day had been leading rider at the last seven spring meets.

Romans had tied for the training title at the last three spring meets. This is his first solo title.

The Ramseys extended their track record for consecutive owner titles. This was the seventh straight meet (spring and fall) at which they shared or won the title.

The last time all three races had been decided before closing day was at the 1999 spring meet, when the leaders were Day, trainer Elliott Walden, and owners Bea and Bob Roberts.

McKee to ride at Ellis Park

Jockey John McKee will be part of the riding colony for the 41-day Ellis Park meet, which begins Wednesday. McKee previously thought about moving to Arlington. "We've got so many good people in Kentucky that it's obvious that's where we belong," said McKee's agent, Eddie Campbell.

McKee, who won 274 races before losing his apprentice allowance June 5, has made a seamless transition since becoming a journeyman. He has won 13 races at Churchill and also has fared well when riding Mondays and Tuesdays at River Downs.

Campbell said McKee will not continue to ride those days at River Downs. "The distance between Ellis and River makes it too hard," Campbell said. "We are going to ride at least one Monday at Saratoga, and I think we might also be going to Arlington a time or two."

McKee is the most obvious threat to end Jon Court's reign at Ellis. Court has been leading rider at Ellis the last five years.

Automatic purse payments an option

Although most trainers will be happy that Kentucky racetracks are making automatic purse payments available to them, veteran trainer Mike Lauer believes the new service could go one step farther, "like how it's done in California," Lauer said.

Beginning with the Ellis meet, trainers can have their share of purse winnings paid directly to them by the horsemen's bookkeeper. Longstanding tradition has been for trainers to bill owners, meaning funds often are unavailable to them for 30 days or longer.

To use the new option, Kentucky trainers must obtain authorization from their clients. In California, the deduction is automatically made for the trainer unless the owner instructs the bookkeeper that he or she wants to be billed later by the trainer.

Lauer, who was instrumental in pushing the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association into securing the new option from racetracks, said the California way is more favorable to trainers. "Their way, the owner might look like a weasel for saying no," Lauer said. "Our way, the trainer might look like he's begging to get paid. Obviously it's more to our advantage the other way."

Tenpins shooting for July 12 return

Trainer Don Winfree said Friday that Tenpins will make his seasonal debut July 12 in the $350,000 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap at Prairie Meadows.

Tenpins, a Michigan-bred 5-year-old whose last race came more than seven months ago in the Clark Handicap, worked a mile Friday in 1:38.60. Robby Albarado, who has the mount in the Cornhusker, was aboard.

Tenpins joins Crafty Shaw and Slider as other Louisville-based horses likely for the Cornhusker.

* My Boston Gal, whose 3-year-old season has been as disappointing as her 2 year-old season was outstanding, is through for the year. My Boston Gal recently had been gearing up for a return to action after undergoing minor throat surgery following a fifth-place finish in the May 2 Kentucky Oaks, but now she has been sidelined by a minor fracture of the tibia.

Trainer Carl Nafzger said the injury will not require surgery but My Boston Gal will be out of training for about four months. My Boston Gal was unbeaten in three starts at 2 but was just 1 for 4 this year.