07/04/2004 11:00PM

Scene shifts to country for summer

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Summer officially began June 21, but as far as Kentucky racing is concerned, it doesn't start in earnest until horses start racing at Ellis Park.

That unofficial start to summer arrives Wednesday at Ellis, where 54 days of action will coincide with a somewhat slower pace of life than that at Churchill Downs.

Long known as "the Pea Patch" for its agricultural aura, Ellis offers a brand of racing reminiscent of country fairs and other less urbane elements, and its continued vibrancy serves as a reminder that there still is room in racing for something a little different.

The meet starts with a 10-race card that probably overshoots the quality of racing that fans can expect as the meet unfolds. Whereas a steady diet of claiming races eventually becomes the daily fare, three good-looking allowance races are part of the opener, most notably the nominal feature, a $30,500 turf route for 3-year-olds and upward.

The Looper, a June 24 winner of a first-level turf allowance at Churchill, probably is the most logical winner in the ninth of 10 Wednesday races, a second-level allowance scheduled for 1 1/16 miles. Calvin Borel has the mount on The Looper for Neil Howard, who like so many other Churchill-based trainers said he will "ship occasionally" through the summer to run in higher-level races at Ellis.

The Looper drew post 1 in a nine-horse field that also includes Something Rushing, a class-dropping 5-year-old who will be ridden by Rafael Bejarano. The 2003 Ellis meet is where Bejarano really began making a name for himself, and this year, as the national leader in victories, he almost assuredly will be the most dominant player at this meet.

True to form, Bejarano has a ride in every race Wednesday, although his mount in the fourth, Stars Ablaze, has been relegated to the also-eligibles list.

The other allowance races on the Wednesday opener are the third and seventh. Also, the eighth race is a starter-allowance for turf sprinters.

As usual, the Ellis meet will be highlighted by the $200,000 Gardenia Stakes, a Grade 3 event that is the lone graded race of the meet. The Gardenia, a 1 1/8-mile race for fillies and mares, is set for Aug. 7.

In all, 11 stakes worth $1.1 million will be run through the end of the meet, Sept. 6. The first stakes, the $100,000 HBPA Handicap, will be run Saturday. First post daily at Ellis is 12:40 p.m.