11/23/2001 12:00AM

TP Racing better than business outlook

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No, life isn't that grand at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., where four-plus months of winter racing gets under way Sunday.

For the last several years, Turfway's business has been hurt by nearby Indiana riverboats and full-card simulcast competition in Ohio, with average ontrack attendance and handle having been cut nearly in half since 1995. This drastic turn of events has led track president Bob Elliston to spend much of his time recently traveling around the state, pleading for help from Kentucky state legislators.

Clearly, attaining some form of relief - alternative gaming at state racetracks is the most commonly offered solution - has become the dominant issue at Turfway. But in the meantime, racing goes on, as evidenced by the 10-race card that opens the 27-day holiday meet Sunday at 1:10 p.m.

"While I'm optimistic that Kentucky racing will receive some form of relief from the state come 2002, we must do what we can now to make Turfway Park competitive in our marketplace," said Elliston. "It's been a rough year for Turfway, but we are fortunate to be able to benefit from the strengths of our three partners," the Keeneland Association, Harrah's Entertainment, and Gtech.

The hard times have forced Turfway to condense its day-to-day operation. For the time being, the fourth and fifth floors will be closed, except for some group events. Upscale dining now will be offered in the first-floor Homestretch Restaurant, with a more casual atmosphere available in the newly constructed Longshots Sports Bar, located on the third floor.

Meanwhile, several bright spots do exist. The FasTrack Rewards program, which has been a significant plus for regular horseplayers, is giving away an expenses-paid, three-day vacation to Harrah's casino resort in Laughlin, Nev., to its best 100 or so customers. The trip is next week.

Also, the quality of racing should be quite respectable.

"The problems that the Hialeah closing has created in Florida looks like it's going to help our program," said racing secretary Rick Leigh. "We should have more horses to draw from."

Leigh said the Turfway barn area is basically full, with trainers such as Bernie Flint, Ken McPeek, Bill Connelly, Mike Tomlinson, Joe Woodard, Greg Foley, Buff Bradley, and Phil Marino having sizable stables.

Turfway will also draw horses stabled at the Sports Spectrum in Louisville, and others will come in from the Lexington area. Turfway should get an influx of horses when the Hoosier Park meet ends Dec. 3, Leigh said.

Most of the Kentucky circuit's top jockeys, such as Pat Day, Robby Albarado, and Calvin Borel, bypass the Turfway meet. The riding colony figures to be led by Tony D'Amico, James Lopez, Greta Kuntzweiler, Bill Troilo, Charlie Woods Jr., and apprentice Orlando Mojica.

Agent Steve Elzey, who now is handling business for Lopez and Woods, expects his top client, apprentice Kris Prather, who dominated at Turfway last winter, to return from a shoulder injury in February.

Daily purses are expected to average about $160,000 (including bonuses from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund) through Dec. 31, after which the winter-spring meet commences. The average during those three months figures to be slightly lower.

Because of the way the calendar happens to fall this year (an early Thanksgiving and an early Turfway opening), the holiday meet stakes schedule does not begin until next Saturday, Dec. 1, with the $50,000 Holiday Inaugural for filly-mare sprinters.

The other holiday-meet stakes are the Dec. 8 My Charmer, the Dec. 15 Prairie Bayou, the Dec. 22 Gowell, and the Dec. 29 Holiday Cheer. All carry $50,000 purses.

As usual, the highlight of the winter-spring meet will be the $600,000 Lane's End Spiral Stakes on March 23. As a Triple Crown prep race, the Spiral is easily Turfway's most visible race. The 2002 running will be the first time that Lane's End, the noted central Kentucky breeding farm, has served as the title sponsor.

The opening-day feature is an entry-level allowance for 2-year-old fillies at a mile, with a purse of $22,600.