09/06/2009 11:00PM

Turfway meet opens with stakes cuts

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Stop us if you've heard this before: Turfway Park opens a race meet amid disturbing concerns about slumping business caused in large part by fierce competition for the gambling dollar, although track officials are trying to put on the bravest face possible.

Yes, it's a recurring theme at Turfway, but one that rings alarmingly true as this track kicks off a 22-day fall meet at 7 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday. Bob Elliston, now into his 11th year as Turfway president, has gone so far as to say Turfway conceivably could close after next year, if no assistance is forthcoming from the Kentucky legislature in the form of alternative gaming for state tracks.

"If I try to find a silver lining - which I have to do every day I get up - it's that all the difficulties we face as a racetrack and an industry have brought all the different factions together as never before," Elliston said.

With that political football still up in the air, the fall meet gets under way with its signature event having taken a hit. The Kentucky Cup series, which traditionally comprised five stakes, was whittled down to three for its 16th running on Sept. 26. The financial necessity of maintaining a decent overnight purse structure led Turfway officials to cancel the Kentucky Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies while also chopping the Kentucky Cup Classic - once worth as much as $500,000 - to a mere $200,000.

Moreover, only one other stakes, the Turfway Fall Championship on Saturday, will be run during the meet, which runs through Oct. 8. The Marfa and Weekend Delight also were cut from the stakes schedule.

"It really hurt to make those cuts, but it was done out of financial necessity, to maintain the integrity of our overnight program," Elliston said. "Obviously, we're hoping that this is just a temporary fix that will be remedied once the playing field we're always talking about is leveled."

The opening-night feature typifies the fare to be expected throughout the meet. It is an entry-level $24,000 allowance sprint that includes $13,000 in bonuses from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. A field of seven fillies and mares was entered, with the Dale Romans-trained Honchis'n Ponchis looking like the one to beat.

Among the jockeys riding regularly here are Miguel Mena, Jon Court, Victor Lebron, and Leandro Goncalves.