07/13/2006 11:00PM

Some melancholy among the thrills

Lemons Forever won the Kentucky Oaks at 47-1, the highest payoff in the race's 132 runnings.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - How sadly coincidental that as the Churchill Downs spring meet expires Sunday, the horse who provided the most memorable thrill during the 57-day stand is reported to be in dire straits.

It was 10 weekends ago at Churchill that Barbaro raced into immortality by winning the 132nd Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, one of the largest margins in the race's history. The colt became just the fifth undefeated horse to win the Derby, and Churchill fans watched proudly as the colt returned East with what many people believed was an excellent chance to follow Seattle Slew as just the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner.

Unfortunately, that plan went tragically awry when Barbaro was gravely injured in the May 20 Preakness, and since then, Churchill fans, as much as anyone, have tracked the colt's progress with fervent interest. As the meet ends Sunday, and regardless of what fate awaits Barbaro - the colt has been suffering from major health complications, most notably laminitis, in recent days - the enduring image of the 2006 spring meet will be his sensational Derby triumph.

"Regardless of what happens, no one can ever erase what Barbaro did in the Derby," said John Asher, Churchill's vice president for racing communications. "Every Derby is special, but his win here on May 6 was mesmerizing. He won a lot of hearts that day, and obviously what happened in the Preakness endeared him further to racing fans here and beyond."

Besides Barbaro's tremendous Derby victory, the spring meet was highlighted by several other indelible moments, including huge upsets in highly dramatic settings. Lemons Forever won the May 5 Kentucky Oaks at 47-1 to become the longest-priced winner in the 132-year history of the filly classic, while Seek Gold was up in the final jump to win the biggest race of the post-Derby segment of the meet, the June 17 Stephen Foster Handicap, as a 91-1 bomb.

Other notable races included Lost in the Fog's triumphant comeback in the June 3 Aristides Breeders' Cup, and the ferocious stretch duel that ended with Happy Ticket narrowly defeating Oonagh Maccool in the Fleur de Lis Handicap on the Foster undercard.

"There certainly was some spectacular action here this spring," said Asher. "But the horse that will always stand out is Barbaro. Horses just don't dominate the Kentucky Derby the way he did."

Winner won't make trip to championship

Earl Hartley, a 72-year-old Louisville retiree, parlayed a win in the last preliminary round into a win in the track's handicapping finals on Wednesday. Hartley won $5,000 and a berth in the Jan. 26-27 National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, but signed a waiver saying he will forgo his chance to participate in the national contest.

"I had one of those massive strokes, I've had cancer, and I had some new valves put in my heart," he said. "I'm not too healthy, and I don't get around too good anymore."

Hartley, who worked for short periods in mutuels and security at Churchill, said Wednesday was "just my day to win" and that he had not played in a handicapping tournament for several years.

Hartley, who had won a June 28 preliminary, came out on top among 120 finalists.

Kevin Wright of Charlestown, Ind., earned $2,500 and the other national championship berth by finishing second in the Wednesday contest. Unlike Hartley, Wright plans to be in Las Vegas for the nationals.

Rachael Ice, promotions coordinator at Churchill, said Hartley's vacant seat probably will be filled during an off-season summer contest at the track.

Romans looks sure to set mark

Trainer Dale Romans and his main clients, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, were shut out Wednesday and Thursday in their bids to set single-meet records for most wins. Romans, however, who entered the week with 39 wins, equaling the spring-meet record he set in 2003, was a virtual shoo-in to break the mark, if only by way of sheer volume. Romans had one or more horses in five races Friday, seven Saturday, and eight Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Ramseys were not as certain to establish a new mark for owners, which would be 20. The Ramseys, who took 18 wins into the Friday twilight card, had 12 scheduled starters through Sunday. The spring-meet owner record of 19 wins has been accomplished six times, including three times by the Ramseys.

For record-keeping purposes, Churchill does not include the 1983 and 1984 spring-summer meets, when nearly 100 programs were held.

Eye patch draws some wisecracks

Jean Dolan took a lot of ribbing this week at the Trackside training center. Dolan was wearing a patch covering her right eye because the cornea was scratched and later infected. As it happens, Dolan is the regular exercise rider for Eyeforglory, a 4-year-old gelding missing his right eye.

"There's been all kinds of wisecracks about us being double blind or making a perfect team," said Dolan.

Whereas Eyeforglory, a high-range claimer trained by Bob Pincins, lost his eye at a young age, Dolan will be a lot better off.

"I'm supposed to get the patch off this weekend," she said Friday.

Recent arrival from Italy

Veteran jockey Pablo Tolentino is the latest Kentucky newcomer. Tolentino, who rode primarily in Florida and West Virginia when he first came to the United States in 2002, recently returned from Italy, where he had ridden the last several months. Tolentino, 40, rode for four years in his native Peru, beginning in the mid-1980's, before riding for 15 years in Italy, where he was perennially among the leading riders.

Tolentino, who has 117 North American wins, was scheduled to ride several horses on closing weekend here before moving to the Ellis Park meet that begins Wednesday.

* Sunday will see the third annual "Furlongs and Fur" promotion at Churchill. The track is making charitable contributions to the Kentucky Humane Society for vouchers redeemed for free admission.