11/29/2011 2:22PM

Turfway Park begins its long winter run

Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Animal Kingdom wins the Grade 3 Vinery Spiral Stakes in March, the meet highlight at Turfway Park.

Surely some Kentucky horseplayers wanting to decompress from all the frantic action at Keeneland and Churchill Downs the last couple of months will pay less attention as racing shifts to Turfway Park. That’s okay. Nobody ever said Turfway is Keeneland or Churchill, but the Florence, Ky., track still has its own niche and its own group of devotees, both local and in the simulcast market.

Four months of winter racing begin Thursday evening at Turfway, with a nine-race card and a 5:30 p.m. post time.

“We’re into blocking and tackling here,” said Turfway president Bob Elliston. “We’ll get the fundamentals done until a rosier day comes along, which we hope will be sooner than later. We’ve got our eye on the ball for Thursday, and, honestly, our management team is pretty excited about it. It’s supposed to snow this week, so that can only mean one thing – it’s time for Turfway.”

It’s been more than six years since Turfway became the first North American track to install a synthetic racing surface, having done so at the 2005 fall meet. Purses, unfortunately, have stagnated for even longer, although that’s become a tired old refrain at Turfway, arguably the poster child for the ills of Kentucky racing in its never-ending quest to get alternative gaming at state tracks.

Racing secretary Rick Leigh said per-day purses, including stakes, are expected to average nearly $140,000, although that includes nearly $30,000 per card in bonuses from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. Primarily for bookkeeping reasons, the winter is split up into the holiday meet (Dec. 1-31) and winter-spring meet (Jan. 1-April 1).

[MORE: Turfway Park stakes schedule and track information]

“We’ll try to maintain those averages for both meets,” Leigh said.

Elliston said that although longtime regulars such as Bernie Flint, Dale Romans, Greg and Vickie Foley, Paul McGee, and Buff Bradley have either forsaken Kentucky for the winter completely or in large part, “we’ve still got a solid group of horsemen ready to support us through the winter.

“It’s not all strawberries and champagne here, but we are trying to build on the positive things that’ve already happened this year. We’ve got a lot of promotions lined up to bring people out to the track. Most everyone is aware that Animal Kingdom won the Vinery Spiral here before he won the Kentucky Derby, and that the winter-book favorite for the 2012 Derby, Hansen, won a Kentucky Cup race here before he took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. So we’re pretty proud of all that.”

Among the jockeys who will ride regularly at Turfway are apprentice Roberto Morales, the leading rider at the fall meet; Ben Creed, leading rider at the 2011 winter-spring meet; and Marcelino Pedroza, the leading jockey at the 2010 holiday meet.

Several jockeys, including Jon Court and Greta Kuntzweiler, will ride at the holiday meet before departing for the Jan. 13 opening of Oaklawn Park.

Stewards for the holiday meet will be Rick Williams, who has been named the state’s interim chief steward in the aftermath of the Monday firing of John Veitch, along with Ron Herbstreit and Butch Becraft.

Mike Battaglia will be back as always in the announcer’s booth.

The highlight of the opening-night card is a $24,000, first-level allowance with a $20,000 claiming option, and it’s for fillies and mares at six furlongs. More than half the purse ($12,500) is reserved for KTDF eligibles.

The first of five holiday meet stakes comes Saturday with the $50,000 Holiday Inaugural, a six-furlong race with a nominations list of 42 fillies and mares.

The winter-spring highlight, the Grade 3, $500,000 Vinery Spiral, is set for March 24.