09/06/2011 1:16PM

Turfway Park: Kentucky Cup return gives meet a focal point

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The elation that officials at Turfway Park have felt about bringing back the Kentucky Cup for the fall meet that begins Thursday night has been tempered somewhat by the news that North American handle was down a whopping 12.3 percent last month versus corresponding dates for August 2010.

“We’re coming into the meet with mixed feelings,” said Bob Elliston, president of Turfway in Florence, Ky. “We’re tickled with having the Kentucky Cup back, and with an outstanding promotional calendar, but it’s a pretty dark national landscape out there, which obviously could affect our overall handle in a negative way. But we can only control what we can control, so we’re feeling upbeat about the next four weeks here in northern Kentucky.”

Turfway, besieged for years by competition from riverboat casinos in nearby Indiana, announced last month that the Kentucky Cup will return Sept. 24 after a one-year hiatus. The newly named WinStar Kentucky Cup serves as the $200,000 anchor of the five-race, $600,000 series.

As a way of making fiscal room for the Kentucky Cup, no other stakes will be run during the 16-day stand. Most notably, the Turfway Fall Championship, which had served the last two years as a key prep for the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, has been scrapped, although Elliston is hopeful of having it restored for next year and retaining its Grade 3 ranking.

Otherwise, the outlook is about as good as it’s been in recent seasons at Turfway, where daily purses, including the ever-important Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund bonuses, are expected to average about $163,000 per program, according to longtime racing secretary Rick Leigh. One point of future optimism is the possibility of having Instant Racing machines on the property, following the lead of Kentucky Downs, which introduced them last Thursday, albeit to immediate legal opposition that has led to court proceedings this week.

“Our position is this: we’re going to give Instant Racing a shot at the appropriate time, but first we need to have assurances that we’re on solid legal footing,” said Elliston. “Behind the scenes, we are moving as quickly as we can to be ready to go once we get that legal clarity.”

Except for Sundays and Kentucky Cup Day, when post time is 1:10 p.m. Eastern, Turfway will employ a post time of 5:30 p.m. for the balance of its four-day race week (Thursdays through Sundays).

“When we introduced the evening post for Saturdays last February and March, it brought in a different demographic of ontrack fans, so we thought with the better weather we get in September, it’d be worth trying this fall,” said Elliston.

Because of the shift to Saturday evenings, Turfway programs no longer will be melded with races at Kentucky Downs, which will run its four-day meet the next two Saturdays and Mondays (Sept. 10, 12, 17, and 19). The $150,000 Kentucky Cup Turf will be among the seven opening-day races at Kentucky Downs in south-central Kentucky.

The nine-race opening-night card is representative of the typical fare at Turfway, where all races are run over a one-mile Polytrack surface first unveiled at the 2005 fall meet. A $24,000, first-level allowance at a mile is the best of those Thursday evening races.

Turfway runs through Oct. 2, with Keeneland opening the following Friday, Oct. 7.