11/27/2012 3:44PM

Turfway Park begins four-month stand

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Four months of winter racing commence Thursday night at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky with a scaled-down schedule and no sponsor for the spring showcase race – yet with hope that the track’s fate may not be as doomed as it once seemed.

Thursday marks the start of the Holiday meet, which runs through Dec. 31 on a traditional 22-day schedule. The winter-spring meet then runs Jan. 1 through March 31, and that’s when the effects will be evident from the recent decision by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to award September 2013 dates to Churchill Downs instead of Turfway.

Turfway will lose valuable host-track simulcast fees from that switch, and that in turn led officials to decide to reduce racing dates during its less lucrative winter-spring meet. While 13 programs are slated for January, only four are on the calendar for February. In March, there will be 11 days of racing when mostly working on a twice-a-week basis.

In addition, Turfway officials revealed Tuesday that the Kentucky breeding farm Vinery will no longer serve as the title sponsor for the track’s longtime signature event, which – for now – reverts to once again being known as the Spiral Stakes. The 42nd running of the Grade 3, $500,000 race is set for March 23, and longtime director of operations Chip Bach said the track is hoping to find a new sponsor. Vinery sponsored the race for two years (2011-12) after Lane’s End served in that role for nine years (2002-10).

Meanwhile, on a more positive note, developments within the Kentucky state government hierarchy in late October seemed to substantially enhance the possibilities that Turfway will benefit from alternative gaming at state racetracks in the future. David Williams, a longtime nemesis to the racing industry as leader of the state Senate, resigned his position to accept a judgeship, thereby eliminating one of the major roadblocks to that long-sought source of fiscal relief.

Turfway, unlike Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park, has been reluctant to embrace the Instant Racing machines because of the legal issues involved, track spokeswoman Sherry Pinson said. The legality of Instant Racing is still under appeal in the state court system, and Caesars, which owns 50 percent of Turfway (Rock Gaming has 40 percent and Keeneland has 10), cannot afford the implications that being involved in something potentially illegal might have on its other properties, Pinson said.

As for the ontrack action at Turfway, where Polytrack has been in use as the exclusive racing surface since the 2005 fall meet, per-day purses during the Holiday meet are expected to average about $123,000, including stakes and Kentucky Throughbred Development Fund bonuses, according to racing secretary Rick Leigh. Three $50,000 stakes will be run at the Holiday meet, starting Saturday with the Holiday Inaugural for fillies and mares. The six-furlong race drew 37 nominations.

“We have a solid history of strong average field size and good stakes racing during this meet,” Bach said in a release.

The Thursday opener typifies the brand of racing to come. The nominal feature of a 10-race card is a starter-allowance with an $11,500 purse (race 7), with the familiar assortment of $5,000 claiming events serving in support.

TVG typically provides extensive coverage of Turfway races, which will be called as usual by local resident Mike Battaglia.