11/25/2005 1:00AM

Racetrack's winter woes may be over


For years, glancing ahead at the winter racing schedule at Turfway Park has been like surveying a minefield: You never knew where something was going to blow up.

With frequent weather-related cancellations dogging its winter racing program, Turfway long has been an unreliable site for racing from late November through early April. Bob Elliston estimates that weather has forced "an average of maybe eight to 12 cancellations each winter" since he became president of the Florence, Ky., track in 1999.

Thankfully, those frustrating days might very well be in the past. Turfway opens for more than four months on Sunday, and with Polytrack

having brought a racetrack revolution of sorts, Elliston said he has "great optimism" that Polytrack will allow the track to conduct racing on days when it would have been impossible in previous seasons.

Polytrack, a synthetic blend of rubber bits, carpet fibers, and silica sand, made its debut to rave reviews from horsemen and fans at the 22-day fall meet in September. But the acid test surely will come when it is subjected to the harsh elements of winter.

"I think the Polytrack concept is going to come to fruition this winter," said Elliston. "We've already had a couple of tests since the weather turned cold, and we passed with flying colors. We are so upbeat about what our investment in Polytrack is returning."

A nine-race Sunday opener offers the brand of racing that Turfway fans can expect throughout the long winter: nothing fancy, but big fields that offer the kind of wagering opportunities that horseplayers prefer.

"We've got a lot of horses to draw from, so hopefully field size won't be an issue," said racing secretary Rick Leigh.

Technically, the winter at Turfway is divided between the holiday meet, which runs Sunday through Dec. 31, and the winter-spring meet, which runs Jan. 1 to April 6. But there is a seamless transition from one to the other, and no one can tell the difference.

The first stakes of the meet comes next Saturday, Dec. 3, with the Holiday Inaugural, the first of five $50,000 stakes at the holiday meet. Another highlight is the Dec. 4 handicapping tournament, from which the top three finishers will earn seats at the $500,000 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January. The top qualifier gets $10,000.

The biggest race of the winter-spring meet is the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes on March 25.