12/02/2011 3:19PM

Turfway: Top apprentice weighs next spot

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Roberto Morales, the leading apprentice rider at the last four meets in Kentucky, is contemplating a move to Oaklawn Park or Aqueduct around the first of the year, according to his agent, Julio Espinoza.

Morales, a 21-year-old native of Puerto Rico, will lose his five-pound apprenticeship in May and would like to take advantage of better purses at Oaklawn or Aqueduct before losing the allowance, said Espinoza.

“We’re playing it by ear, trying to figure where we could do better,” said Espinoza.

Morales went winless with his six mounts Thursday night at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., where the holiday meet opened. The holiday meet runs through Dec. 31 and is followed by the winter-spring meet from Jan. 1 to April 1. Morales is pondering his move sometime around when the meets switch over.

Morales was the leading apprentice at the summer meet at Ellis Park with 26 wins, with only Calvin Borel finishing ahead of him among all jockeys. He then topped all riders at the Turfway fall meet with 32 wins before leading all apprentices at Keeneland (2 wins) and Churchill Downs (8 wins).

Speed valuable in opener

Results from the Thursday-night opener were interesting from a couple of perspectives: Speed was dominant over the Polytrack surface, with a few exceptions, and a different jockey won each of the nine races.

Five of the races were won in gate-to-wire fashion, with the most notable exception being the 12th-to-first run by 58-1 shot Mocc Me Now in the fourth race. Two other horses, Lucky Chuck and Dare We Dream, rallied from mid-pack in their respective victories, while another, Harrassment, lurked just off the early leader before prevailing.

Bengals-Steelers featured

A pair of $24,000, first-level allowances anchor a nine-race Sunday card that starts at 1:10 p.m. Eastern. The program will coincide with the 1 p.m. NFL game pitting the local team, the Cincinnati Bengals, in a huge rivalry game at Pittsburgh, but Turfway officials have always been cognizant of such conflicts and will be televising the game throughout the track.

“The NFL is a big tradition here during our Sunday cards,” said the track’s president, Bob Elliston.

The second stakes of the meet comes next Saturday, Dec. 10, with the $50,000 My Charmer for fillies and mares at 11/16 miles.

Southward exodus hastens

The horse population in the Churchill Downs barn area is plummeting even faster than usual. With Gulfstream starting a month earlier than usual, Florida-bound trainers wasted little time departing following the final card last Sunday, nor did those headed for New Orleans after missing the first few days of a four-month meet that began Nov. 24.

Even a trainer or two who normally wait around for the mid-January opening of Oaklawn Park have already left, most notably Gary Hartlage, whose stable star, On Fire Baby, swept the Pocahontas and Golden Rod at the fall meet. On Fire Baby was among the Hartlage horses who left Thursday.

Capacity at Churchill is for about 1,425 horses, but “there are only about 300 left,” track spokesman John Asher said Friday. “They got out of here in record time.”

As usual, both the Churchill barn area and the nearby Trackside training center will close for training Dec. 30 for annual maintenance before reopening March 9.