09/26/2006 11:00PM

Stones crowd worries track superintendent

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Butch Lehr's fingers will be crossed tighter than anyone else's Friday night when the Rolling Stones make their historic foray into Churchill Downs. The prospect of unknowing fans trampling his precious turf course is the ultimate nightmare scenario for Lehr, a 39-year Churchill employee who has been the track superintendent since 1981.

"I'm worried, to be honest about it," said Lehr.

Lehr said he has received "every assurance" from concert promoters and other officials who arranged for the Stones to appear before some 50,000 fans "that everything will go the way it's supposed to."

The massive concert stage will be situated in the infield, just inside the turf course between the eighth pole and sixteenth pole. On both the dirt and turf courses, thousands of fans will be seated atop a protective, inter-locking, hard-plastic flooring that purports to minimize the possibilities of damage being incurred. Tens of thousands more fans will be in the grandstand and clubhouse seats.

"I did some experimenting with the plastic flooring in June, put quite a bit of weight on it, and it worked just fine," said Lehr. "Of course, there wasn't a concert going on, either. The main thing you worry about is traffic, people getting off the protective covering and actually getting onto the turf itself. I'm told that is not going to happen. That's the agreement."

In any given year, Lehr - a self-professed chronic worrier - would be concerned about strangers on his turf course. But it just so happens that on Nov. 4 Churchill will host the Breeders' Cup championships, so there is an aggravated element of worry about what will transpire Friday night.

"The grass is in excellent shape," he said. "It's as good as it's ever been. We used a vibratory tamp on it to get it as firm as we could, and the grass is cut shorter than normal. The seats will be on it for a day and a half. As soon as the concert's over, we'll be up all night tearing it down.

"We'll have a little more than four weeks to get the course ready for racing. I've got ten acres of sod in reserve, just in case something unexpected happens, but that's only if worse comes to worse. I just keep telling myself that if everything goes as planned, there's not going to be any problems."

Churchill is the lone racetrack among the numerous sports venues that are playing host to the Stones' "A Bigger Bang" tour. This is the first time in its 132-year history that Churchill has hosted a non-racing event of such scope.

Kentucky Cup trainers ship to Turfway

Churchill will be closed for training Friday and Saturday because of the concert, and many Churchill trainers with starters in the Kentucky Cup series at Turfway Park have arranged for their horses to ship there after training Thursday.

Besides the availability to train at Turfway, perhaps an even greater factor that came into play was getting the horses away from the noise that will be generated during the concert.

Howard shops with Alumni Hall

Neil Howard entered Alumni Hall in the Kentucky Cup Classic but said he did so "just to shop." Howard said he also has the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Oct. 7 Schaefer Mile at Hoosier Park under consideration for the 7-year-old horse.

Meanwhile, in a departure from the norm, Howard said he is taking most of his good horses to Keeneland for the next two months. Howard usually keeps his best horses at Churchill during the fall.

"We want to try to take advantage of the new Polytrack surface at Keeneland," he said.

Aussie group buys Honor in War

Honor in War has run his last race in America. A minority interest in the 7-year-old horse has been sold by Third Turn Stables to an Australian group headed by William Benson, who soon will have the horse turned over to trainer Danny O'Brien in an attempt to have him ready to run in the famed Cox's Plate on Oct. 28. The Australian group ultimately will stand Honor in War at stud.

Honor in War, by Lord at War, has won 10 of 36 starts and earned $1,156,927. Tops among his career highlights are a win in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in 2003 and runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile in 2003 and 2004.