Fleet Renee, shown here working Tuesday morning in preparation for the Kentucky Oaks.

Fleet Renee, shown here working Tuesday morning in preparation for the Kentucky Oaks.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Trainer Of Oaks Favorite Now Happy With Churchill Racing Surface

Michael Dickinson's worries about the Churchill Downs racing surface apparently have been eased. The trainer of the Kentucky Oaks morning line favorite, Fleet Renee, said Thursday afternoon that he is now "happy" with the track's condition.

Dickinson had complained to reporters just that morning that the surface had gotten "firmer" in recent days. He also expressed concern that it might become dangerously hard. On Wednesday, he had talked to Churchill Downs president Alex Waldrop and track superintendent Butch Lehr about the situation.

However, Dickinson said, he and Lehr met again for an hour after training hours Thursday. In addition, the trainer inspected the track personally.

"I walked on the track, took my knife out, and took several 'digs,' " Dickinson said. "I am very happy with the track. It was firm earlier in the week, but I now have every confidence in Butch, who explained to me that there had been a drought, and that he had put a lot of water in the track on Monday. He is a very conscientious man. My filly will win if she is good enough. If she doesn't, the track will not be an excuse."

Relations between Dickinson and Churchill officials had been a bit more contentious earlier. According to Dickinson, the conversation with Waldrop and Lehr went this way on Wednesday:

"I said to them, 'Are you going to break records or break legs? You need to make up your minds. None of us wants any injuries. Butch does this (tries to makes the track faster) every year before the Derby, doesn't he?' They said, 'Oh, we don't deliberately try to make it fast.' I said, 'Well, I believe he knows what he's doing because he's been here nearly 20 years. I think he's doing it on purpose.' "

As evidence that the track has gotten harder, Dickinson pointed to the fast times. Eight horses worked five furlongs in under a minute on Monday. The trainer also said a jockey told him about a filly who worked the same distance in "1:02" last week and ":59" this week. Dickinson also said he believed that Lehr had "souped up" the track on Monday because trainer Bob Baffert "wanted it fast" for the workouts of Kentucky Derby favorite Point Given and the highly-regarded Congaree.

In addition, Dickinson was concerned because Fleet Renee had not been moving as well over the Churchill surface as she had been the previous week.

Lehr, who also serves as a Churchill Downs vice president, was honored by the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association at a reception at the Kentucky Derby Museum on Tuesday night. He was recognized as the Track Superintendent of the Year by the Jockeys' Guild in 1997.

Lehr said he has received complaints from only two people, so far, this week about the Churchill surface: Baffert and Dickinson. Baffert has an opinion that is completely opposite from Dickinson's.

"He (Baffert) has been on my butt all week telling me the track is too loose," Lehr reported.

Lehr said he "overwatered" the track on Monday, a dark day, because there was no rain in the immediate forecast, not because of Baffert's complaints.

As for the fast times Tuesday and other days recently, Lehr explained that when the weather is hot and humid like it has been this week, the speeds pick up because the track retrains moisture longer after it is watered and the surface stays more consistent. Lehr also addressed the common accusation that the track is groomed so it will produce fast times on Derby day. The speed increases, he said, because training hours are restricted on the morning of the big race and that results in less wear and tear on the track.

"This track has a good cushion, and we also have a good safety record," Lehr said.

While he listens to trainers' complaints, he added, he doesn't cater to their whims. He just tries to maintain a racing surface that is both "safe and fast."

--When Fleet Renee made her career debut last November at Aqueduct, Dickinson was so confident that he bet $5,000 on her to win. But he lost all his money when she finished second, beaten just a half-length. "I wasn't crying," he said. "I knew I had a good filly," he said.