12/02/2005 12:00AM

Polytrack's impact already apparent

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Turfway Park made a quick break from the gate when it started its Holiday meet Sunday, and track president Bob Elliston said the new Polytrack surface is the underlying reason.

All-sources handle on the first two programs - Sunday and Wednesday - averaged roughly $2.4 million, up nearly 20 percent from corresponding dates last year. Elliston said he expects that trend to continue, "more or less," especially if Turfway fields continue to be as robust as they are. Through the first three cards, including Thursday night, field size averaged better than 11 horses per race. The Turfway maximum is 12.

"It all goes back to Polytrack," said Elliston, referring to the weather-resistant surface that was first used at the track's fall meet in September. "The horsemen continue to demonstrate how much they like the new surface by the way they're entering. As everyone knows, big fields fuel your business at the windows."

Elliston said part of the increase has resulted from a new agreement with New York OTB, effective with this meet. The Turfway signal is back in OTB shops throughout New York state after a stalemate of more than a year. "The extra $800,000 or so that we handled on the first two cards, about 21 percent of that was from New York OTB," he said. "We also have some new revenue sources through common-pool wagering with Canada. But overall, I'd have to say that fans everywhere are being enticed by the full fields we've been offering them."

Elliston said New York OTB figures to account for up to $8 million in handle during the four-plus months that Turfway conducts racing during the winter. Simulcast contract negotiations between the parties stalled before the 2004 fall meet.

Elliston said the current purse structure does not account for such a substantial increase in all-sources handle, but if the upward trend continues, "we might have to look at increasing purses, and if that happens, I'll be as happy as anybody on the grounds."

Pros, cons of new purse structure

This is the first meet where purses for maiden special weight and allowance races include more money from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund than the Turfway purse account. Previously, by law, KTDF funds could not surpass association funds, but Turfway received permission last month from the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority to employ a 130-percent ratio of KTDF-to-association.

"We have a major surplus in our KTDF account, so we began shifting the association funds into our claiming races while bolstering the maiden and allowance races with KTDF," he said.

As an example, the sixth race Sunday, for maiden special weight 2-year-old fillies, carried a $23,000 purse - with $13,000 from the KTDF and just $10,000 from Turfway. Every horse that finished in the money was eligible to the KTDF, so the entire purse ended up being paid out.

And therein lies a problem for a relatively small percentage of horses that will run in Turfway's higher-end races (no claiming races include KTDF funds). If a horse is not eligible to the KTDF - and, in general, the majority of Kentucky-breds are eligible - then the owner can lose out, big time. As another example, in the eighth race Sunday, the winner was Cat Stalker, a Maryland-bred. Although the total available money was $25,000, including $14,000 from the KTDF, only $15,900 was paid out, including just $6,600 to winning owner Larry Carter. For having your horse win a first-level allowance race, a $6,600 payday barely seems worth the trouble - not to mention blowing a condition.

"Obviously it's to your advantage to have Kentucky-breds at this meet," said trainer Chuck Simon. "If your horse isn't KTDF-eligible and isn't a claiming horse, then you're just better off being somewhere else."

Elliston said he has not received a single complaint about the lopsided purse structure. "People know about it up front and can enter accordingly," he said. "I know it's a little different, but this was the best way for us to allocate purses this winter."

Martinez back to winning ways

Willie Martinez, whose nine riding titles are the most in track history, surely was glad to get back to the friendly confines of Turfway. Martinez went 1 for 42 at Churchill Downs's 21-day fall meet, which ended Nov. 26, but on Sunday's nine-race opener at Turfway, he rode three winners.

Through the first three programs, Martinez was tied for second in the Turfway standings behind Jesus Castanon, who had seven wins.

Horses filing out as track closes

The horse population in the stable area at Churchill already has begun to thin out, with about half of the 1,400 or so horses remaining from the fall meet. Churchill traditionally closes for nearly 2 1/2 months during the winter, with most of the remaining horses moving to the nearby Trackside training center. The deadline for closing this year is Dec. 31.

Because of the cold weather, Churchill is moving training hours to 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern, effective Monday.