03/22/2004 1:00AM

Rain was coming, so track was sealed


FLORENCE, Ky. - Some people were happy, some weren't, and some didn't care. A cynic might say the satisfaction quotient was inversely proportional to how their horses performed Saturday in the Lane's End Stakes. But whatever the case, the most talked about post-race topic was the decision by Turfway Park management to seal the racetrack about 20 minutes before the race was run.

Trainer Nick Zito and jockey Jerry Bailey, the connections of beaten favorite Birdstone, expressed skepticism and dismay about the track being sealed. Because Birdstone had never raced over a sealed track, it was their most plausible excuse for the colt's dull fifth-place performance. Several others, including Bill Mott, trainer of eighth-place Stolen Time, also questioned the decision.

A track is sealed, or packed down by weighted drags pulled by tractors, to maintain its shape and consistency in the case of excessive moisture. Some horses may not run their best race over a sealed track, just as some do not like slop or turf or any other particular surface.

A downpour appeared imminent Saturday at just about the time the Lane's End was scheduled to be run, so track president Bob Elliston gave the go-ahead to his maintenance crew to seal the track. By the time the field left the gate, a steady drizzle was on, but the heavy rain held off until after the race was over. A soaking rain eventually moved in.

"It was a danged-if-you-do, danged-if-you-don't kind of situation," Elliston said Monday. "If the rain comes 10 minutes earlier, we look like heroes."

"A deluge of that kind may have created an unsafe situation. We knew it was coming. We watch the radar religiously. We were all getting pretty soaked in the winner's circle, so obviously a downpour was on its way. The bottom line is, we made the determination to seal the track with the best interests of all parties in mind."

He added: "I certainly have the highest respect for Jerry Bailey and Nick Zito, so it's troubling to me that they had concerns like that. I can only respond by saying that we believed it was a safety issue. Can you call it a conservative move? You might call it that. But obviously it doesn't do us any good to take an action that might be construed as detrimental to our biggest race of the year. On the contrary."

Silver Minister's race a mystery

The connections of Silver Minister are mystified about why the gelding began an early fade and finished last of 11 in the Lane's End.

Rob Lloyd, who manages the Lloyd Madison syndicate, which owns Silver Minister, said trainer Greg Foley told him Sunday that the gelding "acted like he hadn't raced. It's a big question mark. Greg had some blood work done, but he doesn't really anticipate anything being wrong. It looks like it's just one of those things."

Foley did not blame the racing surface; he said to do so would be to "reach" for an excuse.

Silver Minister entered the Lane's End with four straight wins at Turfway.

Brass Hat, 38-1, almost didn't run

If not for a potential buyer who may have been a little too picky, it's highly unlikely that Brass Hat even would have run in the Rushaway Stakes on Saturday, let alone win the race at 38-1.

Trainer William "Buff" Bradley said Monday that the gelding nearly was sold before the race but the deal was turned down. He said the asking price was "just a little more than what he earned Saturday," which was $62,000.

"The vet came up to me after the race and said, 'I thought those people bought the horse,'" Bradley said. "He said the horse had a few little things wrong with it, but nothing that would keep anybody from following through if they really wanted him."

Brass Hat was bred and is owned by Bradley's father, Fred, a longtime breeder and owner who lives in Frankfort, Ky. "My dad said it's just as well that we keep him," said the younger Bradley. "People are calling again about buying him, but we haven't set a price."

Bradley said that because Brass Hat was a maiden going into the Rushaway, he probably will look for a nonwinners-of-two race allowance at the upcoming Keeneland meet.

Douglas back on Madcap Escapade

With Jerry Bailey committed to ride Peace Rules and Wild Spirit for Bobby Frankel on April 3 at Oaklawn Park, jockey Rene Douglas has regained the mount on Madcap Escapade the same day in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

Madcap Escapade, a romping winner of all three career starts, is expected to run against reigning divisional champion Halfbridled in what figures to be a riveting showdown in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland.

With Douglas back aboard Madcap Escapade, Rafael Bejarano is first in line to get the mount the same day on Suave in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Suave, the A.P. Indy colt who won an entry-level allowance route on the March 13 Florida Derby undercard at Gulfstream Park, arrived Sunday at Keeneland with Randy Martin, assistant to trainer Paul McGee.

Cooksey 'winded' in return

Jockey Patti Cooksey finished last with her first mount in nearly a year when Religious trailed in a five-horse field in the 10th race Friday at Turfway.

Cooksey said she was "a little winded" at the end of the six-furlong race. Cooksey, 46, had been away since April 12, 2003, after suffering multiple leg fractures in a spill at Keeneland.

Cooksey said she hopes to be more active and attract more mounts in the coming weeks. With 2,136 career wins, Cooksey trails only Julie Krone for most victories among North American female jockeys.

Lumpkins hires new agent

Jason Lumpkins, who rode Brass Hat in the Rushaway, will have a new agent when Keeneland starts April 2. Lumpkins has hired Jerry Hissam, who also will continue to work for his longtime client Calvin Borel.

Lumpkins had employed Steve Elzey as his agent for most of the last 18 months or so. Elzey, who enjoyed a record-breaking winter as the agent for Bejarano, said he might have a second rider later this year.

Lane's End card draws 20,934

Turfway is reporting that the 12-race Saturday card produced slight increases from last year in ontrack attendance and all-sources handle, but a slight decrease in ontrack handle.

Attendance was 20,934, up about 4 percent, while all-sources handle of $7,164,448 was up about 3 percent. The ontrack handle of $1,135,546 (not including imported simulcasts) was down about 9 percent. Nearly $2 million was handled on the Lane's End, up about 14 percent.

Despite the betting increases, the numbers are a far cry from the Turfway heydays. From 1994 to 1998, Turfway handled at least $10.5 million from all sources on its biggest day.