06/10/2004 11:00PM

Playing it safe with the turf


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Anyone watching the Churchill Downs simulcast signal Thursday may have found it curious that the two races scheduled for turf had been moved to the main track. Throughout the afternoon, the sun was shining brightly, and there were no outward signs of rain in the recent past or the near future.

Track superintendent Butch Lehr conceded Friday that those races "probably could have been kept on turf, if I'd had to," but as a matter of policy, the decision had been made well before the races had even started.

"We prefer to make that call by scratch time [7:30 a.m.] so that everybody can do what they need to do with their horses, like shipping, medicating, a lot of other things," said Lehr. "It had rained the night before and was also raining when I called the races off. They also were forecasting more rain, and we've been hammering the course pretty good, so I decided that was the way to go."

This has not been a particularly easy spring meet for Lehr, 55. A massive downpour about two hours before the 130th Kentucky Derby was run May 1 posed some especially difficult problems for Lehr and his staff. Drainage lines just past the finish line overflowed well past capacity, spilling excessive water and debris onto the track and washing out a substantial portion of the track heading into the first turn.

Men worked feverishly for about 45 minutes to smooth out the affected area, which, if the rain had not relented, might have forced a lengthy postponement of the race. Lehr, who has been employed here for 37 years, the last 23 as track superintendent, called it the most urgent situation he has ever faced at Churchill.

"Fortunately, the rain did stop and we were able to get it all back together without too many people noticing," he said. "I did get a bunch of calls in my office asking what was going on. I even had one guy ask me if the Derby was going to be cancelled. I really didn't get to talk much because I was trying to stay on top of things, making sure everything that needed to be done got done."

Lehr said that at one critical point he met with track president Steve Sexton and told him that the Derby might have to be delayed as much as 15 minutes so that the track could be properly restored. "As it turned out, we didn't need that much time," he said.

Lehr now looks back on the latest Derby with a huge sense of relief. "I'm just glad that's all behind us," he said.

Clock Stopper points to Smile Sprint

Clock Stopper, a highly impressive last-to-first winner of a six-furlong allowance here Wednesday, is headed for the $500,000 Smile Sprint Handicap at the July 10 Summit of Speed at Calder, said trainer Dallas Stewart.

Clock Stopper, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Overbrook Farm, overcame a poor start to win his second start off a layoff in a rapid 1:08.67. Stewart acknowledged that Clock Stopper has been something of a problem gate horse throughout his career, but "you don't want to change much," he said. "I don't think he could run much faster than he's run."

Johnson gets 19-1 shot home first

Jockey Joe Johnson had a happy homecoming Thursday when guiding 19-1 shot All at Once to victory for his longtime client and friend, trainer Gary Hartlage, in the ninth race, a $49,100 allowance route.

The mount was just the second at the meet for Johnson, who had been riding at Prairie Meadows. Johnson, 36, whose career began in Kentucky in 1989, said he returned to begin building business toward the Ellis Park meet that begins July 7. He has won nearly 750 races, and his mounts have earned over $15.2 million.

* Put Me In, a 4-year-old filly trained by Merrill Scherer, lowered the track record for five furlongs Thursday when winning in 56.61 seconds, eclipsing the former record of 57.14 set nearly two years ago by D'Nile. Put Me In won the eighth race, one of the two that was transferred from the turf.

* Churchill officials have announced that Paula Pomponio of Louisville won 5 million Twin Spires points in a contest drawing held here last weekend. Pomponio's name was randomly selected from about 13,000 club members throughout the U.S. who used their cards to place wagers last Saturday.

Five million points translates to $5,000 in cash, according to a Churchill release.

* The week-long celebration of the life of former President Ronald Reagan evoked memories of his only visit to the Kentucky Derby. It was 1969, and Reagan, then governor of California, was part of a crowd that also included the only sitting president ever to attend the Derby, Richard Nixon.

In honor of Reagan, Churchill flew its infield flags at half-staff all week.