11/28/2016 12:20PM

Turfway has plenty of horses for holiday meet

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Turfway Park will run from Wednesday straight through to April 2.

Four months of winter racing will get under way Wednesday evening at Turfway Park when a nine-race card starts under the lights.

The northern Kentucky track was the first in North America to use Polytrack as its racing surface, and more than a decade since its 2005 installation, the synthetic track remains a useful buffer against the vagaries of the weather in this region, particularly in winter.

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Wednesday begins a five-day week at the holiday meet, which runs through Dec. 31 and is followed seamlessly by the winter-spring meet Jan. 1 to April 2. A full barn area of some 1,000 stalls has been a factor in encouraging track management to use a five-day week (Wednesdays through Sundays) for the holiday meet.

“The horsemen told us they wanted to race more,” said Turfway racing secretary Tyler Picklesimer. “Entries were good for opening night, and we expect a lot of the same through the winter.”

The schedule tapers off with the turn of the calendar, with Sundays dark after New Year’s weekend. The schedule will be further pared for the final month of the winter-spring meet, with Wednesdays being dropped. Post time Wednesdays through Saturdays is 6:15 p.m. Eastern, with first post Sundays at 3 p.m.

Turfway management is still in the process of installing the slots-like Instant Racing machines that have fueled purses at other Kentucky tracks, but Picklesimer said owner JACK Entertainment (formerly Rock Gaming) is waiting on financing for completion of the ambitious project.

In the meantime, purses are weak, especially in comparison to Kentucky Downs, Keeneland, and Churchill Downs. A maiden special weight race offers just $18,500, and if a horse is ineligible for Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund bonuses, that number is reduced to a mere $10,000.

Still, Turfway is a useful outlet for horses who can’t compete on larger circuits, and top trainers such as Mike Maker and Wesley Ward will have some of their lesser stock trying to pay their way through the winter.

Just two stakes will be run at the holiday meet: the $50,000 Holiday Inaugural on Saturday and the $50,000 Prairie Bayou on Dec. 17. Eight stakes are on the books for the winter-spring meet, topped as always by the Grade 3, $500,000 Spiral Stakes on March 25.

The Wednesday opener starts with back-to-back $5,000 claiming races and ends with a $5,000 maiden claimer. The nominal feature is the lone allowance of the night, a $20,400, first-level sprint in which Cheray figures well for trainer Jeff Greenhill.

Quite a few trainers and jockeys will compete at the holiday meet before moving to Oaklawn Park, which starts its 2017 meet on Jan. 13.

Jimmy McNerney has assumed full-time duties in the Turfway announcer’s booth with the retirement this year of Mike Battaglia.