04/23/2008 11:00PM

Solid Trial run to get meet going

Barbara D. Livingston
Cool Coal Man hits the Churchill track Wednesday preparing for his Derby start.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The rain forecast for Saturday morning isn't the only menace to the start of the Churchill Downs spring meet. A complicated contract dispute between Churchill Downs Inc. and horsemen is playing havoc with serious horseplayers, although no one would deny that the show must go on.

In that tenuous vein, a 52-day meet that crests early with the 134th Kentucky Derby on May 3 is set to run Saturday through July 6, regardless of whether a resolution is found to a contractual stalemate centering on simulcast revenue splits and advance-deposit wagering accounts. Churchill and the Derby being what they are, more-casual racing fans frankly don't much care about such controversy, and their focus will be on the less vexing matter of on-the-track action.

The Derby Trial, that anachronistic holdover from an era when meaningful prep races were run mere days before the Derby, helps get the meet under way as the highlight of an 11-race Saturday opener.

"A race with no ramifications whatsoever," is what Norm Casse, the assistant trainer for Turf War, called the 84th running of the Trial, "but it still looks like a very good race."

Indeed, with horses such as Kodiak Kowboy and Majestic Warrior in a field of 11, the Trial has come up far better than it might have otherwise for an ungraded $100,000 race at the rarely run distance of 7 1/2 furlongs. Kodiak Kowboy, a three-time stakes winner at 2, will be trying to rebound from a fourth-place finish three weeks ago in the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland, while Majestic Warrior, once a major Derby hope, will race in blinkers for the first time in trying to find the form that netted him the Grade 1 Hopeful last summer at Saratoga.

Other viable contenders in a deep cast include Eaton's Gift, Fujita, Macho Again, Iron Works Pike, Zulu Again, and Turf War.

Like Majestic Warrior, Turf War also won a graded race at 2 when he dead-heated for win in the $1 million Delta Jackpot, but his Derby bid fizzled with subpar efforts in the Southwest and Lane's End.

The Trial occasionally produces a starter for the Preakness three weeks later, but it now has been 50 years since a Derby winner, Tim Tam in 1958, used the race as a final prep.

The weather in Louisville has been terrific this week, with the daily high temperature around 80 and little humidity, but the forecast by The Weather Channel for opening day calls for morning showers and a high of 68.

The Trial kicks off a sensational opening week that culminates with the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and the Derby the following day. As always, many of the best horses, jockeys, and trainers in North America will be at Churchill during a time when even sports neophytes turn their attention to horse racing.

Starting Thursday, 14 more stakes will be run here through the Derby, with the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, the Grade 1 Humana Distaff, and the Grade 2 Louisville Stakes being the more notable supporting events.

The post-Derby segment of the meet will be highlighted June 14 by the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, a race that possibly could attract the 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin, who recently took up residence at Churchill.

As for the ongoing stalemate between Churchill, represented by TrackNet Media, and horsemen, represented by the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, the central issue is revenue derived from simulcasts and advance-deposit wagering sites such as Twinspires.com and Xpressbet. If an agreement is not reached, the possibility exists that the Churchill signal could be withheld from account-wagering operations. The simulcast rights to the Derby, Oaks, and Woodford Reserve, however, are a separate issue from other Churchill races, according to the track and horsemen's officials, and the signals for those races apparently are not imperiled.

In a related matter involving simulcast revenue, the signal from Calder Race Course, owned by Churchill, recently was blacked out at nearly all interstate betting locations and advance-deposit sites. The impasse prompted Churchill to slash purses at Calder by 30 percent, effective Sunday.

Asked for comment Thursday about how negotiations are proceeding, Churchill president Steve Sexton said, "We are working toward a resolution."