02/01/2008 12:00AM

Trackside barns strong despite missed training

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The usual weather-related problems led to 22 missed days of training during January at the Trackside Training Center, where many horsemen are stabled and ship to run at Turfway Park in Florence during this time of year.

A frozen dirt track was the primary reason that horses were not permitted to train at Trackside during the dates of Jan. 1-5, Jan. 14-28, and Jan. 30-31. Despite afternoon training hours designed to maximize the possibility of the track being open, maintenance crews were helpless against the frigid elements in attempting to open the six-furlong track on any of those days.

Still, the impact of Trackside being closed is less than what it was just a few years ago. With the advent of synthetic, all-weather surfaces at racetracks and training facilities, fewer trainers are dependent on conventional dirt surfaces than in the past. Only a little more than half of Trackside's 508 stalls are currently in use, largely because more horses now can train on synthetics. Besides Turfway and Keeneland, which use Polytrack as their primary racing surfaces, other local facilities using synthetics include the five-furlong training track at Keeneland, as well as Skylight near Goshen and High Point near LaGrange.

Veteran trainer Phil Thomas Jr., who has a three-horse stable at Trackside, said that horses not being able to train should be a minor variable for handicappers.

"Most of these horses have been running all year, so they don't need much anyway," said Thomas. "You still get a lot of winners coming out of here, regardless."

Indeed, the leading trainers at every Turfway winter-spring meet for the last 10 years - Bernie Flint (1998-2003), Greg Foley (2004-06), and Paul McGee (2007) - all have had main bases at Trackside, where freezing is a problem every January and February. Likewise, the Turfway stakes race every Saturday usually has at least one top contender shipping from Trackside.

Thomas said Trackside trainers often come into work knowing they won't be able to train.

"You get the horses out of the stall and walk them around the shed row for a while, but that's about all you can do," he said. "It's a good thing it's not like this all the time."

Irish apprentice making an impact

Kieran O'Neill got the attention of Turfway horseplayers by winning two races on the Jan. 26 card. O'Neill, 18, is one of a handful of riders new to Turfway this winter, having arrived late last year from his native Ireland.

"He's a very talented young man," said Jimmy Corrigan, a Lexington-based trainer who is serving as O'Neill's unofficial mentor and sponsor. "He listens very well, and he's a very quick learner."

O'Neill, a seven-pound apprentice who has hired John Herbstreit as his agent, rode three winners when he began his career last fall in Ireland, where racing is not held during the winter. During his down time, he came to the United States to visit friends and "take a look around," said Corrigan, and partially because of his initial success, "he likes it here and he's here to stay."

O'Neill is part of a Turfway jockey colony that has had quite a bit of turnover this year. Other newcomers include journeymen Aldo Canchano and Tommy Pompell, a former Fairmount Park mainstay who led the winter-spring standings by a 22-20 count over John McKee coming into Friday night's card.

Texas Fever may return for Battaglia

Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's WEBN Stakes, trainer Mike Stidham said Texas Fever will return to Fair Grounds afterward.

A good performance in the WEBN, however, could convince Stidham to ship Texas Fever back to Kentucky for the $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial on March 1. The 1 1/16-mile Battaglia comes three weeks before the annual Turfway showcase, the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes on March 22.

* Perhaps in an unintentional nod to how the Super Bowl overshadows all, Turfway did not bother to card so much as one allowance on its nine-race Sunday card. In a more overt way of recognizing the big game, first post Sunday is noon Eastern, with the last race set for 3:34 p.m., giving everyone plenty of time to get to where they need to be.

* Veteran jockey Justin Vitek has hired Tony King as his agent. After Turfway ends April 3, Vitek and King's other jockey, Hector Rosario Jr., both will split their time between meets at River Downs and Indiana Downs.