03/18/2008 11:00PM

Owner seeks special win

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Nothing says Racecar Rhapsody has to win the Lane's End Stakes, the Turfway Park showcase that will be run Saturday for the 37th time. But if symbolism carries any weight, nothing would be more fitting.

Jerry Carroll is the majority owner of Racecar Rhapsody, a stretch-running colt who rates as a major threat in what is expected to be a field of about 10 3-year-olds for the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End. Carroll, now 63, salvaged a rundown racetrack in Florence, Ky., known as Latonia when he bought it in 1986, pumping life not only into a flagging business but also hundreds of acres of what has become a thriving swath of northern Kentucky.

Among his innumerable accomplishments at Turfway, Carroll transformed the Lane's End - known as the Jim Beam Stakes from 1982 to 1998 - from an insignificant race to a major prep for the Kentucky Derby. While the late John Battaglia inaugurated the race in 1972 as a way for horses to "spiral up" to the Derby - hence the initial name, the Spiral Stakes - and Lane's End Farm has lent further stability to the race since assuming sponsorship in 2002, no one has come close to Jerry Carroll in doing more for the Lane's End, which this weekend is the lone major stepping-stone to the 134th Derby on May 3.

"We changed it from a race to an event," Carroll said proudly during a lengthy recent interview. "Everybody who was anybody in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky absolutely had to be there."

Carroll said the first phone call he received after buying the track in 1986 was from Barry Berish, then the chief executive officer of Jim Beam Brands, which already had been the race sponsor for four years.

"Barry said, 'We're dropping our sponsorship,' " Carroll recalled. "So I went to Chicago and told him I was jumping the race to $500,000, made a full-blown pitch. I sold him on it, and we stayed together all those years. I still call the race the Jim Beam."

In 1999, a few months before Carroll sold the track to a partnership that included its current owner, the Keeneland Association, the race was sponsored for the first and only time by Jim McIngvale's Gallery Furniture in Houston. The purse was $750,000, tying it with three other races as the richest prep for the Derby that spring. Carroll is quick to point out the connection between rich purses and the presence of top-class horses in the race, naming Summer Squall, Hansel, Prairie Bayou, Serena's Song, Event of the Year, and other stars whose connections were enticed to bring them to Turfway.

"I'd personally call owners and tell them, 'You need to run in the Jim Beam,' and they'd say, 'Huh, what's that?'" said Carroll. "I got George Steinbrenner on the phone for a half-hour, and a couple Yankee tickets down the road, he came here with Concerto," the 1997 winner. "What we were able to do was create, to do what we knew we could do."

Carroll was a true maverick who openly defied the racing establishment. He can tell stories for hours, with some of his favorites being about how he dared to cross the likes of Tom Meeker of Churchill Downs and Ted Bassett of Keeneland, or about how he brought celebrities such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Wayne Newton, and President Gerald Ford to town for the Jim Beam.

In the end, however, Carroll was disheartened by what he calls the racing industry's resistance to change. While his main businesses today are real estate and the Kentucky Speedway, a 72,000-seat motor sports venue located some 35 miles south of Turfway in rural Sparta, Ky., he has remained semi-active in horse racing as a fan and owner. He owns 70 percent of Racecar Rhapsody, while Stan Kaplan, a retired Cincinnati psychiatrist and philanthropist, owns most of the remaining interest.

Racecar Rhapsody, a $400,000 yearling purchase, will be making his first start since Dec. 7 in the

1 1/8-mile Lane's End. In all four races at 2, the son of Tale of the Cat came flying from far back, and Carroll and trainer Ken McPeek are hoping the colt has the style to suit the longer distances that await him.

"The colt showed talent at a high level back in the fall," said McPeek, who has gotten five breezes at Gulfstream Park into the colt since mid-February.

McPeek said the colt had some minor physical issues, including an ankle problem, and that put him behind schedule.

"But he's really talented," McPeek said, "and this is the time of year we find out just how good they are."

McPeek said Racecar Rhapsody will wear blinkers for the first time in the Lane's End, for which entries were to be drawn Wednesday.

"He needs to get more focused early," he said. "You can't be spotting them 15 lengths."

He added that if the colt runs well, he would proceed along the Derby trail to Keeneland and would have a final prep in either the April 12 Blue Grass or the April 19 Lexington.

McPeek has trained for Carroll for about 10 years, and he is fully aware of how influential Carroll has been in Lane's End history.

"I know it'd be extra special for Jerry to win it," he said.