Turfway optimistic as Holiday Meet begins

If it were a racehorse, Turfway Park would be that horse that produced steady, at times glowing, results this year in the face of increasingly stalwart competition.

Challenges remain for the Florence track as it gears up for its return to live racing Thursday, but recent momentum has made winning at the races an easier task for Kentucky's winter-racing base.

There is no magic wand that will make issues such as shrinking purses and field sizes instantly go away. But — to steal a line from Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn — Turfway Park has simply been making it work, producing gains in its on-track and all-sources handle during its 2011 Winter/Spring Meet and a slight increase in its on-track numbers at the close of its Fall meeting.

Though several core Kentucky horsemen have chosen to head to spots like Fair Grounds for the winter, early entries show there is still support for the Holiday portion of Turfway's meet, which runs from Dec. 1-31, before the Winter/Spring Meet goes from Jan. 1-April 1.

Of the nine races carded for Thursday evening, seven lured 11 or more runners and the fields are even fuller for Friday's slate. Not hurting the issue is the fact Turfway has the distinction of having both this year's Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Hansen prep over their track, with the former taking the Grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes in March and Hansen romping to a 131/4-length win in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile.

"You just find a way. That's our attitude around here because it's tough all over," said Turfway President Bob Elliston. "You create some enthusiasm around the things you can control, and we've been blessed to have these great horses like Animal Kingdom and Hansen win and give us some excitement even when you think you're up against it again. Trainers are creatures of habit, and they like to replicate winning moves.

"Then you have first day of entries with 10-11 horses per race average and ... all that (are) good signs," he continued. "I wish we had $400,000 a day in purse money to go with it."

Though Gulfstream Park is starting its meet on Saturday — a month earlier than last year — Elliston doesn't believe it will impact Turfway as those horses weren't likely to be on the Kentucky winter circuit, regardless.

As the recently concluded Churchill Downs meet reaffirmed, however, maintaining field size will be a struggle especially when meets like Oaklawn Park get under way in January.

"You've got to pick your spots with your condition books, no doubt," Elliston said. "'You have to cater your racing to the population of horses you can draw from.

"We arrange our schedule in such a way to run more races when we can do a larger population of horses to draw from and recognize when Oaklawn opens and Hawthorne opens and Mountaineer opens that's competition for us."

Though there have been rumors in recent months a deal is in the works for Keeneland to sell its 50 percent ownership of Turfway to Caesars Entertainment (formerly Harrah's Entertainment) which owns the other 50 percent of the track, Elliston said Tuesday the current ownership is unchanged.

"Right now the ownership remains between Keeneland and Dusty Corp. (a subsidiary of Harrah's)," Elliston said.