09/02/2001 11:00PM

In tough times, stakes purses take some big hits

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Say that they're posturing. Officials at Turfway Park don't care; they only want to be heard. Badly wounded by the relentless siphoning of what once were their own gambling dollars, Turfway opens its 22-day fall meet Wednesday evening with cries for help amid what clearly has become an unsavory situation.

A glance through the stakes book is all that is really needed to determine that racing at Turfway has stagnated to a worrisome level. Purses for the Kentucky Cup, the series that has brought national attention to Turfway each September since 1994, have been slashed by $200,000, with the showcase race, the Kentucky Cup Classic, dropped to $400,000.

Turfway president Bob Elliston continues to beat the drums for a more favorable operating environment for this northern Kentucky track. Since 1996, when the first of three nearby riverboat casinos opened in Indiana, ontrack handle on live racing at Turfway has dropped 43 percent, from $145 million to $86 million last year.

Turfway, owned in partnership by the Keeneland Association, was a participant in recent public forums in Kentucky, where the state racing commission sought to raise awareness of the severity of issues facing the industry.

"It's obvious that our numbers show that we are in need of relief, whether it's in the form of reduced taxes or business enhancements such as ontrack gaming," said Elliston.

Meanwhile, the show goes on at Turfway. Opening night offers a respectable preview of what typically follows here in the fall, when many top Kentucky outfits return from Saratoga and keep their horses in racing shape when waiting for the fall meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Two allowance sprints serve as co-features.

In the eighth race, worth $28,600, trainer Pat Byrne has a solid contender in Lindt, while the ninth , worth $30,400, could have Eli Lilliput as the one to beat for veteran trainer Mike Bell.

A $40,000 claiming sprint for fillies and mares also is carded as race 7.

The first stakes of the meet comes Saturday, when the Grade 3 Turfway Fall Championship is run at 1 1/8 miles. Da Devil, Mountain Range, and Nite Dreamer are among the top candidates for the $100,000 race.

The Turfway jockey colony is led by Kris Prather, who finally is 100 percent again after suffering two frustrating setbacks this year.

Prather, who from Jan. 1 rode a staggering 110 winners before injuring a knee in a starting-gate accident here March 17, has been riding at Ellis Park since recently returning from a shoulder injury suffered in Louisville this summer.

Prather, 22, has been granted an extension on her apprenticeship because of time missed due to her injuries. She will ride with a five-pound allowance into early next year.

Kentucky Cup cutbacks

A closer look at the five-race Kentucky Cup reveals that some of the recommendations made earlier this year by the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association were put into effect. The HBPA, led by president Dr. Alex Harthill, urged Turfway to decrease the value of the Kentucky Cup and spread some of the leftover funds into overnight races.

Changes to the Kentucky Cup include:

* Elimination of the $50,000 Starter Stakes, formerly the sixth race in the series.

* Cutting the Classic from $500,000 to $400,000, with $200,000 of the purse coming from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. The KTDF portion formerly was $100,000.

* Cutting the Turfway Breeders' Cup by $50,000 to $200,000. The purse includes $75,000 from Breeders' Cup and $50,000 from the KTDF.

In all, the Cup races will be worth up to $950,000.

* Besides the Kentucky Cup at Turfway, the turf counterpart at Kentucky Downs also is set for this month. The same schedule, with four turf races worth a combined $700,000, is on the agenda for the Sept. 23 card at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky. The seven-day Kentucky Downs meet runs Sept. 15-24.