The Road to the Kentucky Derby and Road to the Kentucky Oaks kick-off in prime time under the lights Saturday at Churchill Downs as the legendary Louisville racetrack enters into its a first foray of September racing since 1890.
A new chapter in Churchill Downs’ storied history began today (Friday) in earnest with the start of the new 12-date September Meet. The four-week flurry of weekend horse racing will mark the first time in the track’s 139 years that three race meets will be conducted in a calendar year.
Ten-race programs with be staged every Friday (1:45 p.m. EDT), Saturday (12:45 p.m. EDT) and Sunday (12:45 p.m. EDT) in September, with two 11-race “Downs After Dark” night racing programs scheduled for this Saturday (Sept. 7) and Sept. 28.
The special “Downs After Dark” racing begins at 6 p.m. EDT.
Over the course of the boutique meet, horsemen will have the opportunity to compete for a daily average of $407,000 in prize money, which includes eight stakes events cumulatively worth $975,000.
More than $500,000 in stakes prizes will be awarded Saturday as Churchill Downs’ hosts a stakes quartet, led by two important $150,000 juvenile fixtures at 1 1/16 miles.
The 32nd running of the Iroquois (Grade III) for 2-year-olds, which was previously staged during the Fall Meet in late October, was moved to September, received a $50,000 purse increase and the distance was elongated by a sixteenth of a mile so it could launch the 18-race “Kentucky Derby Prep Season” at the home of the America’s greatest race.
Meanwhile, the Pocahontas (GII), which will be staged for the 45th time, launches the “Kentucky Oaks Prep Season” series.
Points will be awarded to the Top 4 finishers in both races – 10 points for first, 4 for second, 2 for third and 1 for fourth. The top point-earners at the series’ conclusion next spring will ultimately determine which horses have preference to start in the 140th renewals of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI).
A dozen colts and geldings were entered in the Iroquois – the most since 13 ran in the 2005 renewal – and eight fillies were lured to the Pocahontas. Each race also is a part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series, and the winners will earn starting positions in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) in early November at Santa Anita.
Dan Dougherty’s Ride On Curlin, a dazzling 7 ¾-length maiden winner at Ellis Park in mid-July, was made the Iroquois’ 5-2 morning line favorite by veteran oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. The son of 2008-09 Horse of the Year Curlin made a favorable impression in his second career start for trainer Billy Gowan while clocking 5 ½ furlongs in a track record 1:03.00 under recently-inducted Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner. The victory appeared to be validated when clear runner-up Union Hall returned to win his maiden by 4 ¼ lengths on Aug. 17 at Remington Park. However, the colt returned to finish fourth Thursday night at Remington Park against allowance competition.
Ride On Curlin’s promise could be prosperous for Dougherty. He bought the Kentucky-bred colt for $25,000 as a yearling and recently entertained a lofty $1 million offer to sell. Ultimately, he declined to sell when a deal couldn’t come to terms.
Ride On Curlin, who will break under Borel from post No. 9, may receive his biggest challenge from a colt that has yet to win a race. Arguably, Ron Winchell’s promising maiden Tapiture exits the strongest race, a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga on Aug. 17. Tapiture was second and beaten 4 ½ lengths by Strong Mandate , but the winner returned Monday to romp in Grade I Hopeful by 9 ¾ lengths.
Other top contenders are Andrena and Paul Van Doren’s 4 ¾-length Mountaineer Juvenile winner Rise Up, and George and Lori Hall’s Solemnly Swear, who drew off to win a one-mile maiden race at Monmouth Park by 8 ½ lengths.
The Iroquois field (with jockey and morning line odds) from the rail out: Laddie Boy (Jesus Castanon, 20-1); All Cash (Miguel Mena, 15-1); Rise Up (Rosie Napravnik, 5-1); Tapiture (Ricardo Santana Jr., 7-2); Cleburne (Corey Lanerie, 10-1); Honorable Judge (Joe Rocco Jr., 12-1); Solemnly Swear (Joe Bravo, 6-1); Jimmy Connors (Elvis Trujillo, 12-1); Ride On Curlin (Calvin Borel, 5-2); Smart Cover (Shaun Bridgmohan, 12-1); Stonecrusher (Joe Johnson, 20-1); and Cee ’n O (Alan Garcia, 20-1).
The Iroquois will go as Race 7 at 9:05 p.m. EDT.
Joseph Sutton’s Milam, who won at first-asking on Aug. 4 at Ellis Park, is the 3-1 early choice in the Pocahontas, which will go as Race 6 at 8:30 p.m. EDT. Trained by Eddie Kenneally and ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., Milam went gate-to-wire in her debut, repulsed a bid and drew away to beat J J Julep by 3 ¾ lengths while clocking six furlongs in a swift 1:09.72. The runner-up returned a week ago to win a maiden special weight on turf by 6 ¼ lengths.
Stoneway Farm’s Stonetastic invades from Monmouth Park fresh off a scintillating 12 ½-length career debut. The gray/roan daughter of Mizzen Mast raced on the outside of a rival to the quarter pole and then drew away in hand to clock 5 ½ furlongs in 1:04.45. Joe Bravo has the mount for trainer Kelly Breen and will break from the outside post.
Notable entrants also include Winchell’s Untapable, the half-sister to Grade I-winner Paddy O’Prado who won her only start at Churchill Downs in June, and Stonestreet Stables LLC’s Elena Strikes, who was third in Schuylerville (GIII) at Saratoga in late July. John Velasquez will be in town to ride the latter for trainer Todd Pletcher.
The field for the Pocahontas from the rail out (with jockey and morning line odds): Untapable (Napravnik, 4-1); Elena Strikes (John Velazquez, 4-1); Milam (Brian Hernandez Jr., 3-1); Rosalind (Victor Lebron, 5-1); Harlan’s Special (Johnson, 6-1); Nevada Deputy (Santana, 12-1); Redheaded Witch (Lanerie, 20-1); and Stonetastic (Bravo, 7-2).
Saturday’s 11-race “Downs After Dark” program also will showcase top milers in the $100,000-added Ack Ack Handicap (GIII), and fillies and mares in the $100,000-added Locust Grove over 1 1/16 miles.
Churchill Downs’ new September Meet not only provides horsemen with lucrative racing opportunities at an important time on the racing calendar, but it creates a new product offering and experience for area sports fans and entertainment seekers.
Fans are encouraged to express their passion and dress in support of their favorite school Saturday night as Churchill Downs is transformed into Louisville’s ultimate nighttime hot spot for “Downs After Dark: College Rivalry Night” Presented by Finlandia Vodka. Each fan that passes through admission gates will be asked which collegiate team they support. At night’s end, the school with the most votes will be awarded $5,000 in scholarships. Additionally, the runner-up will receive $3,000 in grants, while the third-place finisher will get $2,000.
Churchill Downs’ celebration under the lights is sure to have the atmosphere of a tailgate party in its spacious 30,000-square-foot Plaza, complete with live music, unique food and drink offerings, corn hole games, a football toss, cheerleaders, marching bands and more. Admission gates will open at 4 p.m., the final live race will be 11:10 p.m. and the on-track party will continue in the Plaza until 11:30 p.m.
Cover charge (general admission) to all Downs After Dark events is $10. Holders of shareholders passes or horsemen licenses and children age 12 and under (when accompanied by an adult) will be admitted free of charge. No one under the age of 18 will be admitted to the track unless they are accompanied by a parent or responsible adult. Indoor dining packages in Millionaires Row are $59.90 per person and include a delectable buffet dinner, reserved seat and official program. Outdoor third-floor box seats are $20 and include general admission, a box seat in the third-floor clubhouse and an official program.
“College Rivalry Night” is the centerpiece of opening week activities. Churchill Downs will launch the meet Friday and host the “City’s Best Happy Hours!” with drink specials, food trucks and live music in the Plaza from 4-7 p.m. The first of 10 races on Fridays will be 1:45 p.m. Meanwhile, Sundays are Family Fun Days Presented by Kroger. The 10-race programs, which begin at 12:45 p.m., will showcase family-focused activities on the Plaza Balcony throughout the day from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kids 12 and younger are invited to enjoy games, crafts, visits from the popular mascot Churchill Charlie and special weekly events.
Racing at Churchill Downs in September is rare but not unprecedented. The track’s Fall Meet, which will be held for the 124th time from Oct. 27-Nov. 30, was staged exclusively during September on nine occasions: 1875-76, 1879, 1884, 1886-90. Churchill Downs’ most recent September racing dates occurred in the mid-1980s when a pair of extended Spring/Summer meets stretched into the month. The April 30-Sept. 5 Fall Meet of 1983 consisted of 93 racing days, and the 1984 meet, also 93 days, ran from April 28-Sept. 3. Prior to those mid-’80s meets, the most recent September racing dates were conducted at Churchill Downs during back-to-back Fall Meets of 1966 (Sept. 10-Oct. 8) and ’67 (Sept. 2-Oct. 7).