11/19/2008 12:00AM

Romans goes for big finish

Matt Goins
Thorn Song, trained by Dale Romans, has won 7 of 16 starts on the grass and will be the probable favorite in the Grade 3 River City Handicap on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Dale Romans has won six Grade 1 races in his 22-year training career, and in virtually no time flat, he can run down the names of them all.

The 2004 Whitney Handicap with Roses in May was his first, Romans can quickly recall, "and the Shadwell with Thorn Song was my last."

Romans tried twice for a seventh Grade 1 victory last month in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita but came home empty-handed. Thorn Song, winner of the Oct.o4 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in his previous start, set the pace before fading to ninth in the BC Mile, while C.S. Silk also led early before tiring to seventh in the BC Juvenile Fillies.

Romans is pinning his hopes on several horses in trying to finish the 26-day Churchill Downs fall meet with a flourish, and Thorn Song is one of them. The gray speedster will be the favorite while defending his title Saturday in the 32nd running of the $100,000 River City Handicap.

Romans, who has won or tied for eight training titles at Churchill, also has Swift Temper pointing to the Falls City Handicap next Thursday and Sara Louise to the Golden Rod Stakes on Nov. 29. C.S. Silk also was nominated to the Golden Rod but is more likely to run in the Dec. 5 Delta Princess in Louisiana, said Romans.

Thorn Song has been assigned the far outside post in a field of 11 older horses entered in the River City, a Grade 3 race set for 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Romans also has Yate's Black Cat, who drew post 1, as a longshot in the River City field.

Thorn Song, a 5-year-old horse owned by Zayat Stables, has won 7 of 16 starts on grass, with a bit of variety mixed in. He won both the 2007 River City and the 2008 Firecracker on a yielding course at Churchill, but he won the Shadwell on very firm turf at Keeneland.

"It really doesn't matter what kind of track he gets," said Romans. "The Breeders' Cup, let's face it - it was just a really tough race. We thought we'd run him this one more time and probably give him some time off at the farm."

Robby Albarado has the mount back on Thorn Song, who will spot his rivals from three to nine pounds when carrying high weight of 122 pounds. From the rail, the River City lineup is: Yate's Black Cat, Mr. Sidney, Star Plus, Pleasant Strike, Karelian, Just as Well, Telling, Demarcation, Canela, Steve's Double, and Thorn Song.

Besides the River City, a 10-race Saturday card also includes two allowance races and the Bet on Sunshine, a six-furlong overnight handicap with a $56,000 purse. The Bet on Sunshine drew a field of eight older sprinters and features an exciting matchup of Euroears, unbeaten in six career starts, versus Kelly's Landing, an earner of more than $1.85 million.

Free Country win brings back memories

There was a wistful sort of footnote to the victory posted in the 10th race last Saturday by Free Country, a first-time starter trained by Ken McPeek.

Free Country, a 2-year-old colt from the first crop of Big Country, was an $11,000 purchase as a weanling at the 2006 November Keeneland Sales, less than three months after his breeder, George Brunacini, was killed. Brunacini, who was 60, was on the Comair flight that crashed shortly after takeoff from the Lexington, Ky., airport on the morning of Aug. 27, 2006.

Free Country is one of the final equine legacies of Brunacini, who owned and bred horses for about the last 10 years of his life. The colt was the first winner for Big Country, by A.P. Indy.

* It could be argued that the most successful new face in the Churchill jockeys' room this fall is an old one: Julio Garcia, a 46-year-old Puerto Rico native who was seventh in the standings with 10 wins entering Wednesday action. Garcia, who has ridden in the United States since 1983, has said he most likely will return to California or Florida after the meet ends Nov. 29.

* The third and final hurricane glass giveaway takes place Saturday when Kent Desormeaux collectibles are given out to the first 5,000 paid customers. Desormeaux will be available for autographs on Sunday before the races on the second-floor clubhouse. Calvin Borel and Robby Albarado glasses were given out on previous Saturdays.

* The last of the preliminary rounds in the meet-long handicapping contest were held Wednesday. The finals will be held Sunday, with $4,000 in cash and two berths in the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January at stake.