09/22/2011 2:05PM

Turfway Park: Maker's home away from home

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Barbara D. Livingston
Baryshnikov in on for the WinStar Kentucky Cup.

FLORENCE, Ky. – Mike Maker must see dollar signs when he drives north on Interstate 71 from his home in Louisville to Turfway Park. The 42-year-old trainer has developed a knack for taking down the bigger prizes at Turfway, having twice won the track’s premier race, now known as the Vinery Spiral, with With a City (2006) and Dean’s Kitten (2010), as well as the last running of the Kentucky Cup Classic in 2009 with Furthest Land.

In addition, Maker has been the leading trainer here at seven different meets in the last four years, often when shipping his better horses elsewhere and racing his lesser stock at Turfway. On Saturday, when the Kentucky Cup is renewed following a one-year hiatus, Maker will have the most starters in the series with five, including Baryshnikov in the $200,000 WinStar Kentucky Cup, which takes the place of the KC Classic.

“I guess it’s all about Kentucky racing, being home,” he said. “You always want to do well at home, no matter how big or small the purses are.”

Maker learned his way to the Turfway winner’s circle as the longtime assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Famer who remains the winningest trainer in the history of both the Kentucky Cup (14) and Turfway stakes (36). Maker was an integral part of the Lukas team when horses such as Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, and Serena’s Song were big draws.

“Those were some fun times, including those first few Kentucky Cups,” said Maker.

While Maker clearly enjoys his trips to Turfway, his 5-year-old son, Michael, might not. Just seconds before the gate opened for the 2010 Spiral, Michael fell and bumped his head, and Maker wound up carrying his bawling son into the winner’s circle.

“The same thing happened last spring when Baryshnikov won the Tejano Run,” said a chuckling Maker. “He was running around the gift shop and fell and conked his head. He went to the winner’s circle crying then, too.”

Whatever it takes to get there . . . .

More money might help

Turfway officials are hoping the victory by Animal Kingdom in the 137th Kentucky Derby last May will help entice horses to its major events, those being the Vinery Spiral and the Kentucky Cup. Animal Kingdom won the Spiral last March en route to his Derby triumph, helping to dispel the notion that prep races over a synthetic racetrack may not be advantageous.

What would seem to further the cause for the Kentucky Cup, however, is bigger purses. Fifteen years ago, the series was worth more than $1 million, led by the Classic at $500,000.

“If you look at the depth of the fields we have, the caliber of the horses, and their connections, I think it’s incredible what we’ve assembled this year,” said Turfway’s president, Bob Elliston. “At the same time, it makes you wonder how we would do if we had $1 million to offer. I think these fields are evidence that people want to run here, but what’s holding us back is the competitiveness of our purses.”

Purses for the five-race Kentucky Cup are $600,000 this year.

Stewards to weigh withdrawal

The Turfway stewards planned to meet Thursday evening to discuss how to proceed in the case of owner Billy Hays and trainer Joe Woodard, who moved their 25-horse string of horses from Turfway to Penn National last weekend after scratching their last 15 scheduled starters here.

There has been no ruling issued against Hays or Woodard despite their apparent violations of state racing rules that do not permit a horse to be scratched without a veterinary or other viable excuse.

Hays and Woodard withdrew their horses amid a dispute they have with Dr. Bryce Peckham, the chief racing veterinarian in Kentucky. Since the 2009 fall meet, Hays and Woodard have been Turfway’s leading owner and trainer, respectively, four times, and they also are the perennial leaders at Beulah Park and River Downs while campaigning well over 100 horses.