09/01/2003 12:00AM

Signs point toward full fields

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FLORENCE, Ky. - The big names are back from Saratoga, and Keeneland is just around the corner. A 10-race Wednesday card starts Turfway Park's fall meet, a full month of racing marked by considerably better weather and a higher caliber of racing than what Turfway fans normally experience when wintertime rolls around.

As always, the highlight of the meet is the Kentucky Cup, a five-race series that will have the usual sprinkling of marquee horses. This year, it is Congaree who figures as a heavy favorite in the Classic, the centerpiece of the Sept. 13 showcase. Edgar Prado is scheduled to ride Congaree for trainer Bob Baffert.

Yet it is the 21 days of racing before and after the Kentucky Cup that will go furthest in determining the relative success of the fall meet, which runs through Oct. 3. Turfway president Bob Elliston said the easing of competition with Hoosier Park, which has undergone substantial purse reductions this year, is one factor that could allow Turfway to average as many as 10 horses per race, a rare number in the industry.

"We've got a lot of top trainers stabled here, and they're ready to roll," said Elliston, naming Ronny Werner, Dale Romans, Dallas Stewart, Dallas Keen, and Buff Bradley among those with large local stables. "Plus we've got a brand new surface that horsemen are raving about."

Last winter, Turfway endured a brutal spate of weather that played havoc with the racing surface and forced nearly three straight weeks of cancellations. After spending nearly $100,000 on a different strain of sand, Elliston and track consultant Joe King are satisfied that those difficulties will be greatly diminished.

With the recent departure of jockey Jason Lumpkins, who easily won the riding titles at the holiday and winter-spring meets, the race for leading rider this fall figures to come down to Rafael Bejarano, who dominated the recent Ellis Park meet, and John McKee, who won the 2002 fall title as an apprentice. Top jockeys such as Shane Sellers, Robby Albarado, and others who have spent the summer outside Kentucky sometimes ride at the meet.

The first stakes of the meet comes Saturday with the $75,000 Weekend Delight, a six-furlong race that drew 36 nominations. Vicki Vallencourt and Colonial Glitter are among the most notable prospects.

The opening-night feature is a $26,800 allowance in which Artistic Design and Western Legacy rank highly. First post is 7 p.m. Eastern.