08/07/2001 11:00PM

Rider Kutz's rebound from cancer speaks volumes

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HENDERSON, Ky. - Dean Kutz had a face full of dirt, but nothing could have felt any better.

"I felt like I won," Kutz said after he rode To the Test to a non-threatening eighth in the first race Wednesday at Ellis Park. "But with all that dirt on my face, obviously I didn't."

In one respect, Kutz was the biggest winner in the race, won by a 2-year-old filly named Never Out. Diagnosed with throat cancer in February 2000, the veteran jockey returned to action for the first time when climbing aboard To the Test for trainer Bernie Flint.

Kutz said he did not feel winded after his comeback race. Conversing with reporters with a metallic, hand-held device he needs for speaking because of the loss of his voice box to surgery, he said he did feel "a couple of butterflies" in the post parade.

"I don't care if you've been riding one year or 30, you're going to feel a little anxious in a situation like this," said Kutz, who turns 45 next week.

Although Kutz obviously will not carry his speaking aid with him during races, he said he often would have it at his disposal so that he can communicate with clients before and after races. "My valet is going to carry it with him," he said.

Kutz has a hole in his throat, also the result of the cancer surgery; it is his only source of air. He is unconcerned about dirt or debris getting into the hole because his jockey silks and turtleneck undershirt cover it.

Kutz, a winner of nearly 2,800 races in a career dating to 1972, spent much of the afternoon accepting handshakes and congratulations from longtime friends and his fellow riders. "It's admirable, inspiring," said fellow rider Jon Court. "He's a leader."

"To me, it's a courageous move," said Tony D'Amico. "He's out there riding and can't say anything. Sometimes you're out there needing a little help where you have to say, 'He-e-e-e-y!' I know I wouldn't want to be in his position."

Kutz had one more mount Wednesday, finishing seventh aboard Miss Chris in the eighth race. He said he planned to ride sparingly at Ellis, which ends Sept. 3, then be in full swing for the Turfway Park fall meet.

'Zollern' highweight in Gardenia

The premier race of the 41-day Ellis meet, the $200,000 Gardenia Stakes, is shaping up with a field of at least six fillies and mares, led by a pair of Churchill Downs-based mares, Rose of Zollern and Royal Fair. The 1 1/8-mile Gardenia will be run Saturday.

Rose of Zollern, a $400,000 earner who is overseen by Bill Mott assistant Ralph Nicks, won the local prep for the Grade 3 Gardenia, the July 14 HBPA Handicap.

Rose of Zollern will be ridden again by Larry Melancon and will carry high weight of 119 pounds, three more than Royal Fair.

Calvin Borel will ride Royal Fair, trained by Rusty Arnold assistant Jack Bohannan. The other probables are Asher, 115, Mark Guidry; Please Sign In, 114, Randy Meier; Fast Delivery, 113, Court; and Zenith, 112, James Lopez.

A terrific field of local filly-mare sprinters is ready for the $100,000 Ellis Park Breeders' Cup, which also will be run here Saturday.

Multiple stakes winners Miss Seffens, Hidden Assets, and Trip head a cast of about seven. Hattiesburg, Itsaprincess, Southern Tour, and Chumsie also are likely.

The Ellis Park BC previously had been run as a one-mile prep for the Gardenia. But with the Gardenia now being run two weeks earlier than its traditional date, the resulting shakeup of the stakes schedule led track officials to make the Ellis BC a six-furlong race on the Gardenia undercard.

Four-way jockey battle is brewing

Unlike the last three years, when Court dominated the jockey standings, a battle is brewing for leading rider at Ellis.

After three races Wednesday, Calvin Borel led Court by a 23-22 margin. Apprentices Axel DaSilva and Orlando Mojica also were in contention with 20 and 19 winners, respectively.

"It's been a different meet," said Court. "Lot of new faces, and the bugs are doing good. I'm just going to do my best to the end."

Jockey Woods, 50, injured again

Veteran jockey Charlie Woods Jr. has suffered another setback in his stalled career. Woods was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade after being spilled in a July 29 turf race here. Woods, 50, hopes to return by the end of the Turfway fall meet in September.

This is the third serious injury in the last three years for Woods. In July 1998, he suffered a badly broken wrist that kept him out for two years. Last November, he was sidelined for about six months with a knee injury.