11/27/2003 12:00AM

Ups and downs of year in Kentucky


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Although Dec. 31 is the end of the calendar year, one could argue that the horse racing accounting year in Kentucky ends Saturday when Churchill Downs completes its fall meet.

The next day, Turfway Park opens for its holiday meet, which should have full fields and bettable, competitive winter racing - albeit of lesser quality.

Not all the Kentucky players compete at Turfway, however. Many of the leading jockeys, trainers, and horses head south for the winter. To be fair to them, any analysis of Kentucky racing should end with Saturday's racing, even with the official end of the year a little more than a month away.

Starting with jockeys, Cornelio Velasquez did what many considered the impossible when he dethroned Pat Day during the spring Churchill Downs meet. Velasquez came to Kentucky, and his aggressive, hard-riding style stood out on a circuit with sit-chilly jockeys.

Day won the Keeneland riding title in October and currently sits well atop the rider standings at Churchill, with Velasquez far behind in second. Calvin Borel and John McKee have also experienced excellent meets.

Watching Borel ride at Churchill Downs this fall has been like going back in time 10 years to his days at Louisiana Downs. When he is on a late-running horse, he will advance up the inside, wait for his opponents to drift out entering the stretch, then blast up the fence.

Rafael Bejarano, fifth in the Churchill fall standings, comes off a breakthrough year. He was easily the leading rider at Ellis Park and followed that by winning the fall title at Turfway. Jason Lumpkins was the leading rider at Turfway during the winter.

On the trainer front, Kentucky horseplayers saw trainers go through tremendous runs and droughts. Nick Zito, for example, was unstoppable at Keeneland, winning 11 of 31 races in the fall. At Churchill, Zito is 2 for 25 through Wednesday.

By contrast, Dale Romans went 3 for 32 at Keeneland in October, but is well on his way to another training title at Churchill Downs, winning with 18 of 62 starters with a few days remaining in the meet.

Trainers often experience slumps after they win at a percentage far above their customary rate. Their winning horses must carry more weight and subsequently race under tougher conditions, particularly if the winners are allowance horses.

Trainer Carl Nafzger's statistics illustrate that point. He won at over a 30 percent rate in the fall of 2002 in Kentucky, and then experienced a rough winter at Gulfstream Park (1 for 63) and in Kentucky in the spring (2 for 13 at Keeneland, 3 for 61 at Churchill).

At Ellis Park he broke out from his slump, winning 9 of 34 races, and has won at a good percentage since. He is 6 for 36 this fall at Churchill with a $2 ROI of $3.73. That might be attributed to getting a new crop of 2-year-olds to the races, similar to a coach filling gaps on a team with a talented recruiting class.

As for horses, 2003 was a top year for Kentucky-based runners. Perfect Drift became one of the best older horses in the country. Cajun Beat won the Breeders' Cup Sprint after winning the Kentucky Cup Sprint. And Mineshaft, who was narrowly beaten in the Stephen Foster at Churchill, is the favorite to become Horse of the Year.

Kentucky's weakness, this year and in most years, was in the grass division. The best finish by a Kentucky-based horse in any of the three Breeders' Cup grass races was Freefourinternet's sixth-place finish in the Mile. The Canadian-based Soaring Free finished fifth in the Mile after prepping in the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.

In part this can be attributed to the fact that a graded-stakes quality grass horse can run for only about five months in Kentucky - during the spring and fall at Keeneland and Churchill and during a short meet at Kentucky Downs. Turfway does not have a turf course, and Ellis Park's turf races are geared more toward allowance and minor stakes horses.

Consequently, former European horses tend to go to New York or California when beginning their U. S. careers.

At least it is encouraging to see new blood coming to Kentucky from South America. Trainer Ken McPeek has brought a number of talented grass horses to Kentucky from Brazil, including the River City Handicap winner, Hard Buck.

What about the babies? The Cliff's Edge was spectacular winning the Iroquois, and Eurosilver was sharp in winning the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. They both won by commanding margins, suggesting that either they are stars or that there was not much running behind them.

The 2-year-old stakes fillies have been slow. Stellar Jayne won the Pocahontas when Sweet Jo Jo broke down on the lead. She earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 72, which in past years was below par for a maiden race in Kentucky, much less a stakes.

Saturday's Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club should shed more light on this division. Perhaps The Cliff's Edge will run another dominant race or one of the fillies will step up. Otherwise, the chances of a Kentucky-based horse winning the Kentucky Derby or Oaks next year appear bleak.