09/16/2003 11:00PM

Upgrade proven performers over quirky turf

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As much as I enjoy wagering on grass races at Ellis Park over the summer, there is little high-class turf racing in Kentucky following the conclusion of the Churchill Downs spring meet. After Churchill there are no graded stakes races on grass in Kentucky until mid-September. Ellis Park runs primarily allowances and small stakes on grass, and Turfway Park does not have a turf course.

Kentucky Downs does, even if it is out of the ordinary. With its sweeping turns and hills, it is far from a typical grass course, and it is a welcome addition to the turf-racing scene.

Saturday, Kentucky Downs will run its Kentucky Cup races, featuring the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Turf. If the first three days of the Kentucky Downs meet are a fair indication, the races should be good betting affairs. Most of the Kentucky Downs races have attracted large fields, and the quality has been up compared to past meets.

Because the track runs just seven days a year, finding trends and angles there can be difficult. There are many unknowns. Horses ship to Kentucky Downs from all over Kentucky, as well as from Chicago and other racing centers. The stakes attract even more shippers, which makes handicapping difficult.

One factor to consider when analyzing Kentucky Downs races is that some horses clearly relish the course, while others loathe it. There is a clay base beneath the turf course, much different than the sand base found at most other grass courses.

Already this meet, horses with past success over the Kentucky Downs turf course have returned to run very well, sometimes at decent prices.

The horse-for-course angle at Kentucky Downs will get put to a test in the Kentucky Cup with many of last year's winners and top finishers returning. Rochester is expected back to defend his title in the Kentucky Cup Turf and Red Lightning will seek to win back-to-back Kentucky Cup Turf Dashes.

Beyond looking at a horse's past record at Kentucky Downs, note that some riders seem to excel over the course. Due in part to the undulating, European-style nature of the course, it does not play as evenly as more traditional turf courses. Some riders have a knack for positioning their mounts on the best footing on the course.

Jon Court was the leading rider at Kentucky Downs last year, edging Zoe Cadman for the title. He has two wins this meet despite missing Saturday's opening-day card, when he rode at Turfway.

This meet, Brice Blanc leads the standings with three winners from nine mounts. He appears to be landing better mounts than he typically gets in Kentucky because of his reputation as a skilled grass jockey. Other riders this meet with at least two Kentucky Downs victories include Bill Troilo, John McKee, Eddie Zuniga, and Joe Deegan.

The Kentucky Cup will bring about a deeper cast of jockeys than is typically found at Kentucky Downs, with riders such as Robby Albarado expected to ride the stakes races.

Albarado is expected to ride Bonapaw in the Kentucky Cup Turf Dash, according to track officials. One of the best main-track sprinters of 2002, Bonapaw will be looking for his first victory since taking the Grade 1 Vosburgh last fall. The switch to the grass appears to be an attempt to reverse his shaky recent form. He won his only turf start when racing a mile at Fair Grounds in 1999, and the six-furlong distance of the Kentucky Cup Dash should suit his speed.

The main event is the Kentucky Cup Turf, a 1 1/2-mile grass race. Even with a lower purse than last year, the race is expected to have a field comparable to last year's. Defending champion Rochester, who is cross-entered in the $200,000 Caesar Rodney Handicap at Delaware Park, may face Continental Red and Cetewayo, a pair of quality grass horses. Continental Red just missed when second in the Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 31, and Cetewayo, a Grade 1 winner in 1998, is battle tested against many of the nation's best turf horses.

Despite their presence, Rochester should prove difficult to defeat. He ran a career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure when he won last year at Kentucky Downs, and he enters the Kentucky Cup in sharp form, following three on-the-board stakes finishes.