11/29/2013 2:02PM

Turfway Park: Holiday meet offers two stakes


Four months of winter racing begins Sunday at Turfway Park, where officials, horsemen, and fans are in the familiar mode of simply trying to maintain an upbeat attitude and a measure of respectability while the northern Kentucky track continues its uphill battles.

Attendance and handle have declined so steadily at Turfway in recent years that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission took away its traditional September dates and gave them to Churchill Downs for 2013, 2014, and probably beyond. Turfway officials long have blamed the demise of their product on the unwavering competition for the gambling dollar from casinos in neighboring states (Indiana and now Ohio) as well as competing Thoroughbred tracks that can offer slots-enriched purses.

They make a strong and valid case, and they hope for a long-term resolution to their problems sooner than later. But in the meantime, the show must go on.

A 19-day holiday meet runs through Dec. 31 with a Thursday-to-Sunday schedule that should occasionally showcase a decent brand of racing, considering that some stables will not be leaving Kentucky for Oaklawn Park for a few more weeks. With the turn of the calendar, the winter-spring schedule is reduced to three days (Friday through Sunday) for January and February, with two-day racing in March (no Sundays) an option still being discussed among management and horsemen.

As an illustration of the struggles faced by the racing office, which now is headed by Tyler Picklesimer, just two $50,000 stakes are scheduled for the holiday meet, the first coming Dec. 7 with the Holiday Inaugural. At the winter-spring meet, the Grade 3, $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes, the track’s signature event, is the shining beacon among eight stakes, with the 43rd running set for March 22.

A one-mile Polytrack surface in use at Turfway since September 2005 recently underwent the first of three phases of renovation, a project welcomed by horsemen and one that will cost some $500,000 upon completion, according to track general manager Chip Bach.

Norberto Arroyo Jr., who dominated the jockey standings here last winter, is back for the holiday meet, although it is uncertain whether he will stay for the entire winter as he contemplates a move to Oaklawn Park, which starts Jan. 10. Other regulars will include Perry Ouzts, Rodney Prescott, Albin Jimenez, and newcomer Noel Vigil.

The dominant trainer of recent years, Mike Maker, will have 40 stalls at Turfway, according to Picklesimer, even with Maker having a sizable presence in Florida this winter. Among the new trainers is Olivo Inirio, who will have 27 stalls when coming in from Thistledown.

Turfway mostly will employ a 48-hour draw schedule for Saturday and Sunday cards but will draw five days out for Thursdays and Fridays.

Mike Battaglia, nearing 40 years of race calling at his hometown track, will be in the booth, as usual.