11/18/2009 12:00AM

Stewards' scratch prevents 12-year-old's return

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A potentially unsavory situation turned into a tearful one Wednesday when a 12-year-old mare who had not raced in more than nine years was scratched in the paddock prior to the fifth race at Churchill Downs.

Grand Forks, whose last race had come Aug. 7, 2000, at Del Mar, was 15-1 with 11 minutes to post for the $5,000 claiming race when chief steward John Veitch conferred for several minutes with owner-trainer Kathleen Costello, ultimately informing her that the mare had to be scratched. Costello, 27, broke into tears, denied of her chance to make her debut as a trainer.

"I can't afford to bring her down here and not run her," Costello, based in Lexington, said between sobs.

Rick Trontz, a central Kentucky breeder who had claimed the horse for $32,000 from the Del Mar race but had no luck with her as a producer, said Tuesday he gave the mare to Costello, a former employee, but only with the stipulation that Grand Forks be used strictly as a pleasure horse.

John Odom, who was assisting Costello in the care of the horse Wednesday, said: "The bill of sale only says the mare cannot be bred. It doesn't say anything about not racing her. Nothing was ever said about that." When he learned the mare would not be permitted to run, Odom screamed at Veitch: "Why is she scratched?!"

Costello, who got her trainer's license several months ago, had put Grand Forks through three recorded workouts this month at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, but Veitch told Costello the mare would have to work in front of a state veterinarian before being permitted to race.

Said Odom: "We met all the requirements posted," including the standard pre-race physical examination by the state veterinarian. "They should have told us we were scratched before we went through all this."

Veitch released a statement that read in part: "We decided to err on the side of caution and to protect the animal and the betting public . . . It was a tough call." He conceded that no specific rules were broken.

Veitch said later: "We've told Ms. Costello that we would be willing to work with her but that we need more information about the health and well-being of the horse."

He said the delay in scratching the horse was because he and the other stewards "had not been fully appraised of the situation" and that other commitments delayed their informing Costello of the scratch.

Costello had worked for about six months with broodmares when employed by Trontz at his Hopewell Farm in Midway, Ky., before being laid off in June.

Trontz said Tuesday that he was dismayed that Costello would attempt to race Grand Forks and that he feared for the well-being of the horse, considering her advanced age and the length of time since she had raced.

Trontz said Grand Forks, by Quiet American, had failed to get in foal almost every year, although "she did have a baby that I believe died at a very early age after some sort of accident." After so many years of futility, Grand Forks became a riding horse, and when Costello was laid off, according to Trontz, she asked to take the horse with her, and he agreed.

Trontz said Costello later contacted him to get the Jockey Club registry papers for the mare, assuring him it was for the purposes of entering her in a dressage event, so he gave her the papers.

"This is all very disturbing to me," Trontz said.

Grand Forks was scheduled to be ridden Wednesday by Bonnie Castaneda. A crowd of curiosity seekers had gathered around the paddock to take a look at the horse when the unusual scene unfolded.

Veitch said he would "look into reimbursing some expenses" incurred by Costello and Castaneda.

Acoma tops Cardinal Handicap field

Acoma will be the starting highweight in the lone stakes of the weekend at Churchill, the Grade 3, $100,000 Cardinal Handicap on Saturday. A field of nine fillies and mares was entered Wednesday.

Acoma, winner of the Mint Julep Handicap here in June, will carry 121 pounds when starting from post 3 in the 1 1/8-mile turf race with Jesus Castanon aboard.

From the rail, this is the Cardinal field: You Go West Girl, Tizfiz, Acoma, Zaskar, Long Approach, Social Queen, My Baby Baby, Leamington, and Lemon Chiffon.

* Effective Thursday, Churchill will begin offering trifectas and pick threes in 50-cent increments, after receiving permission from the racing commission this week. The track already offers 50-cent pick fours and 10-cent superfectas.