10/28/2005 12:00AM

Welcome to Louisville

Bill Straus
Vicarage romps in the Perryville at Keeneland, making him the favorite in Sunday's Ack Ack.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The clocks change overnight Saturday. So does the live racing venue in Kentucky.

Gone are the Indian summer afternoons of Keeneland, displaced by the early nightfall and winter whispers of Churchill Downs. A 21-day meet begins Sunday at Churchill, where the fields will be full, the mutuel payoffs will frequently light up the toteboard, and, in a seamless transition from Keeneland to Churchill, horseplayers will be able to continue enjoying a classy brand of racing.

As usual, the richest races will come toward the end of the meet, when the Nov. 25 Clark Handicap will be run for the 131st time. Until then, a stakes schedule of 12 races, along with a busy promotions schedule, should have fans entertained from flagfall to finish.

The meet opens Sunday with a 10-race card centered around the $100,000 Ack Ack Handicap, a Grade 3 race conducted at the infrequently run distance of 7 1/2 furlongs. , a 10-length winner of the Oct. 14 Perryville Stakes at Keeneland, figures to be a solid favorite off that sensational last score.

Todd Pletcher, whose far-flung powerhouse stable will be in action throughout the meet, is the trainer of Vicarage, a 3-year-old colt by Vicar. Pletcher normally has his entire stable on the East Coast at this time of year, but sent a string of about 26 horses to Churchill for the fall meet for the first time in his career.

The Ack Ack marks the first time Vicarage runs against older horses, but that would be a non-factor if the Dogwood Stable colt runs back to his Perryville effort. Kept close to the pace by John Velazquez, Vicarage pulled away with authority that day, earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

Rafael Bejarano, an overwhelming favorite to win his fourth consecutive Churchill riding title, has inherited the mount on Vicarage from Velazquez.

Despite being a 3-year-old, Vicarage will carry 117 pounds as the starting co-highweight and break from post 8 in the Ack Ack.

Among the top challengers are Straight Line, the only other 3-year-old in the field; Nkosi Reigns, a steady miler who ships in from Chicago for trainer Christine Janks; Artemus Sunrise, upset winner of the Turfway Park Fall Championship in his last start; and Level Playingfield, a last-to-first winner of the Marfa Stakes last month at Turfway.

The rest of the field is Go Now, Britt's Jules, Nakayama Kun, and Sterling Gold.

ran probably the best race of his up-and-down career over this track last fall when capturing the Iroquois Stakes by five lengths. Trained by 81-year-old Harvey Vanier, Straight Line finished second, well clear of third, behind Vicarage in the Perryville in his last start.

Nkosi Reigns has been consistent if nothing else for Janks, who has enjoyed an exceptionally good year, winning at a 22 percent clip. Nkosi Reigns, winner of the Cigar Stakes on the Aug. 13 Arlington Million undercard, figures to be in close attendance to the early pace Sunday while ridden by Robby Albarado.

was claimed for $40,000 in May by owner Thad Ackel, a former trainer who saddled Great Communicator to win the 1988 Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill. In his last start, Artemus Sunrise, trained by Steve Flint, won at Turfway at nearly 31-1 and earned a 100 Beyer.

Level Playingfield might just be a late-running sprinter, which begs the question of whether the odd distance of the Ack Ack will be good or bad for him. Trained by Bob Holthus, Level Playingfield has stepped forward with several sharp efforts in 11 starts this year, notably his second-place finish in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap in May and his recent Marfa triumph.

The Ack Ack is the ninth race on an meet-opening card that also has three allowances (races 6, 7, 8).

A total of 129 horses (including 24 also-eligibles) are entered on the program. First post is 12:40 p.m. Eastern.

Meet highlights

Nov. 12Mrs. Revere (G2)$150,000
Nov. 24Falls City Handicap (G2)300,000
Nov. 25Clark Handicap (G2)500,000
Nov. 26Golden Rod (G2)200,000
Nov. 26Kentucky Jockey Club (G2)200,000