09/12/2007 11:00PM

For six days, it's all turf European style

EmailThe only European-style turf track available to North American horseplayers kicks off its traditional six-day fall meet Saturday when Kentucky Downs melds six races with 10 from sister track Turfway Park.

Kentucky Downs opens its 2007 meet with new ownership: Corey Johnsen, a longtime racing executive in Texas, bought the track in partnership last month for an undisclosed price and will be front-and-center Saturday. Johnsen and Ray Reid bought 85 percent of the track, while Turfway, Churchill Downs Inc., and Brad Kelley each retained a 5 percent stake.

Located just north of the Tennessee border near the south-central town of Franklin, Ky., this turf-only track offers a unique style of racing, with asymmetrical turns and an undulating surface. Although the track has experienced some weather-related problems in recent seasons - most notably in 2006, when one program was lost to heavy rain and the track's signature event, the Kentucky Cup turf series, had to be postponed twice before finally being held on a Tuesday - the new administration said this week that the surface is far more resilient and currently in ideal shape.

As a property, Kentucky Downs is alluring to investors mostly because of its proximity to Tennessee, a non-gambling state that surely would send citizens here by the thousands when, or if, alternative gaming is legalized at Kentucky racetracks. Johnsen conceded that the prospect of future slots at Kentucky Downs was a major factor in his decision to buy.

"I'm just thrilled to be part of the Kentucky horse industry," said Johnsen. "Kentucky Downs is a unique facility, and we serve a nice niche for the market. Unless you've actually been here, it's hard to understand how comfortable and nice this facility is."

Kentucky Downs, formerly "dry," now has a liquor license for the first time, which Johnsen called a "major addition in our product mix," along with an expanded video package, the NFL Direct Ticket, and other new amenities. "We're basically a racetrack, OTB, and sports bar, and any time you can create that kind of atmosphere, it's beneficial to the sport of horse racing."

The first of 46 races at the meet is carded as the fifth of 16 in the blended program. The feature is the $45,000 Pleasant Temper Stakes (race 14), a seven-furlong race.

Top contenders in a well-matched field of fillies and mares include Miss Wellspring, the runner-up behind Dynamist in this same race last year; Moon Berry, a game winner of an Ellis Park turf allowance in her last start; Put Away the Halo, who makes an intriguing stretch-out from grass sprints; and Ituna, a mare with three wins on the year.

The six days of Kentucky Downs racing are conducted on consecutive Saturdays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, with Sept. 25 being closing day. Sundays were abandoned several years ago when it became evident that action in the National Football League, including games involving the nearby Tennessee Titans, weakened business.

The 11th annual Kentucky Cup turf series is set for next Saturday, Sept. 22, with the Grade 3, $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf being the richest race. Three other stakes also will be run: the $100,000 KC Ladies Turf, $100,000 KC Turf Dash, and $50,000 Franklin Stakes.

Larry Melancon, the leading rider last fall at Kentucky Downs, will be back for most days, although not for opening day because of obligations at Turfway. Eric Reed, the top trainer last fall, is represented in the Pleasant Temper with longshots Police Woman and Anna Dana.