05/07/2005 12:00AM

This year, wealth is in fashion

Churchill Downs was filled to capacity for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Among the many celebrities on hand was Jamie-Lynn DiScala, who plays Meadow Soprano on The Sopranos.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - You don't have to be rich to own a Kentucky Derby runner. But it helps.

There are feel-good stories surrounding the Derby every year, like the 10 high school buddies who pooled their money and came up with Funny Cide, or the elderly car dealer who bred and owned Smarty Jones. This year, five horseplaying friends from Philadelphia were here at Churchill Downs with Afleet Alex, whom they bought for $75,000 last year.

But the majority of the runners in this year's race are owned by people of great wealth.

George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, owns the Derby favorite, Bellamy Road. Eugene Melnyk, the owner of Flower Alley, owns the National Hockey League's Ottawa Senators. Bob McNair, the co-owner of Sort It Out, owns the National Football League's Houston Texans. Jerry Moss, who owns Giacomo with his wife, Ann, is one of the world's most successful record company owners and music publishers.

Charlotte Weber, who owns High Fly, is an heiress to the Campbell's Soup fortune. Leonard Riggio, who bought Noble Causeway as a yearling for $1.15 million, is the chairman of Barnes and Noble. B. Wayne Hughes, who was represented by Don't Get Mad and Greeley's Galaxy, is the founder of Public Storage, which places him on the Forbes 400 list of the country's richest people.

Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, the owners of Bandini and Spanish Chestnut, made their fortunes as legal bookmakers in Great Britain. Philip Cohen, the owner of Closing Argument, is a successful book publisher. And Paul Reddam, the co-owner of Wilko, hit the jackpot when he sold the brokerage Ditech.com and now owns the loan company Cash Call, whose slogan, most appropriately, is "cha-ching."

Oaks Day sets attendance record

Friday's running of the 131st Kentucky Oaks Day had all the makings of a huge one. It led off the first Derby weekend since Churchill completed its $121 million renovation, and the weather could not have been any better.

This confluence of favorable circumstances led to an Oaks-record attendance of 111,243, smashing the raceday record of 106,156 set in 2000. The ontrack wagering total of $12,050,215 also set a record for the day, surpassing the $11.6 million set in 2000. All-source wagering totals were not immediately available.

"We really had everything come together to make it an incredible afternoon," said Churchill spokesman John Asher.

Asmussen revels in Summerly victory

Steve Asmussen wasn't bitter, angry, or vengeful.

All he wanted as the Oaks approached was for Summerly to show her true self. And after Asmussen sent out Summerly to win the Oaks on Friday, Asmussen was just happy.

"She showed what she could do," said Asmussen, who set a North American record for trainers last year by winning 555 races.

Asmussen had watched in dismay when Summerly was drubbed in the April 9 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Adding insult to injury, Sis City, the runaway winner of the Ashland, had been claimed away from Asmussen last summer for $50,000, and most of the focus leading to the Oaks was on Sis City, whose estimated value had swelled to about $2 million.

But rather than sulk or avoid the subject, Asmussen was refreshingly candid about how he had simply been beaten. Considering the vast number of horses that come through his stable, Asmussen said the odds favored him eventually losing a top-class horse in some fashion.

Even in the Oaks aftermath, he had a chance to gloat but steadfastly refused to do so. "Sis City still might be the greatest claim ever," he said. "It just so happens we beat her when it counted, in the Kentucky Oaks."

Faith paid off in futures

The pattern of $2 payoffs on Summerly in the three Oaks Future Wager pools reflects her poor Ashland effort. She returned $31.80 in Pool 1 and $15 in Pool 2, but then paid $28.40 in Pool 3, which was held the same weekend she was drubbed in the Ashland.

Frankel: Raise Derby purse even more

Even though the Derby purse was doubled this year to $2 million, trainer Bobby Frankel still believes it is insufficient in an era when the Dubai World Cup is worth $6 million and the Breeders' Cup Classic $4 million.

"It should be worth more," Frankel said. "I guarantee you there's $100 million worth of horses ruined chasing it this year."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee