03/06/2003 12:00AM

'Tweener zone' track victim of winter weather

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Bob Elliston strapped on his boots and walked out onto a newly laid racing surface at Turfway Park. Never mind that a cold mist was coming down atop Elliston's uncovered head. He hadn't felt so good in quite a while.

"The last two or three weeks have been rough," said Elliston, who has served nearly four years as Turfway president. "We were all pretty despondent there for a while."

Indeed, with 13 racing programs canceled - all or in part - during a dreadful stretch of weather from Feb. 13 to March 3, Elliston said he went through one of the most difficult periods of his professional life. Turfway's financial existence depends heavily on live racing in the winter, and Elliston estimates the lost programs cost the track $3 million or more in gross revenue.

The problem is a familiar one for Turfway. Located in a "tweener zone," as Elliston called it - not as cold as more northern locales, not as warm as more southerly climates - Turfway often undergoes dramatic shifts in temperature during winter. The unfortunate result is a racetrack beholden to weather patterns.

But now, a week into March and with warmer weather just around the corner, it appears the trouble with cancellations is finished for the year. Elliston, who keeps one eye peeled on the WeatherBug.com website, said that after Turfway was forced to cancel most of its Monday program, he decided to dramatically alter the racing surface by having "about 25 percent of it" stripped away and replenished with new sand-based materials that cost roughly $15,000.

"My best guess is that the weather that gives you all that freezing and thawing is behind us," he said.

The chronic problem with the Turfway surface long has been about freezing and thawing. When it snows or rains, then gets colder, the racetrack holds together nicely, as if it can be molded; but when temperatures rise, the track begins losing its contoured shape while thawing but still retains sections of ice, leading to unsafe conditions for horses and riders.

The old surface, which was full of moisture, was stripped away after training hours Tuesday and replaced later that day with the new, dry material.

"People might say, 'Why didn't you do that to begin with, before we had all these cancellations?' " said Elliston. "And the answer is the weather. For the last two weeks or so we've had socked-in fog, high humidity, very little wind, and absolutely no chance whatsoever for the track to dry out. It's been absolutely saturated, with no chance for the water to go anywhere. Putting a new surface down, with all that precipitation still ahead, would have been useless."

Elliston readily concedes that everyone involved with winter racing at Turfway comes into the meet with "eyes wide open. We even budget in five cancellations each meet, knowing what we're up against. We've got all the materials and equipment to deal with winter."

Still, the frustration level for horsemen reached a fairly high level as the cancellations droned on. Trainer Bill Connelly, who has wintered at Turfway for some 20 years, said he and his fellow horsemen "had some concerns that [management was] just doing the same things over and over. Don't get me wrong, I know what the problems are, but it was like, 'Let's try something else.' "

Elliston said that "well over 90 percent" of his dealings with horsemen were positive and that "the main thing during a time like this is to make sure everyone knows what we're trying to do, to have open lines of communication. Obviously it's to our benefit, as much as anyone's, to be open for racing. So we want to do whatever is in the realm of possibility to run if we can."

Using the new track, Turfway ran a 10-race program without incident Wednesday night, only the third time this meet (along with Feb. 26 and March 1) that the track was able to run a full card. Running times were normal, and Elliston said Thursday that "we got nothing but very strong marks back from horsemen and jockeys. I think by Saturday or Sunday, this track is going to be perfect."

Turfway's leading rider, Jason Lumpkins, said Thursday that he and his fellow jockeys were "all satisfied" with the new track. "Maybe it's a tad hard, but after all the problems we've had, it's fine. I know it's a lot better than it had been."

To make up for their lost cards, Turfway has begun racing Monday afternoons and will do so through the end of the meet (April 3). It also will add select races to some remaining weekend programs. Elliston said the track also will seek to add programs or races at meets in September and December.

Elliston used the analogy that running so many dates during a year "is like a route race. We stumbled out of the gate and spotted the field 10 lengths, but we're going to come on like Silky Sullivan."

Seven Four Seven tops Wintergreen

Seven Four Seven, a Bernie Flint-trained mare who dominated Turfway's filly-mare ranks before the cancellations began, is the likely favorite in a field of nine fillies and mares entered in the Saturday feature, the $50,000 Wintergreen Stakes.

Lumpkins again is named aboard Seven Four Seven after guiding the mare to a 4 1/2-length win in her last start, the Feb. 8 Likely Exchange Stakes.

The one-mile Wintergreen is carded as the 10th of 12 Saturday races.

Sarvis rides comeback winner No. 2

Jockey Dean Sarvis, who recently returned to riding after serving a suspension of about four years, rode the second victory of his comeback, guiding El Brette to a 2 1/2-length victory Wednesday night at Turfway.

Sarvis was granted a Kentucky license earlier this year after the Indiana Racing Commission released him from his original 10-year suspension for allegedly being in possession of a battery. He is still barred in Indiana but was given permission to ride elsewhere.

"Of course we are expecting him to walk the straight and narrow," said Bernie Hettel, executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission.

Born in Baltimore, Sarvis, 34, is the nephew of trainers Mike Tammaro and John Tammaro 3rd. The late John Tammaro was his grandfather.