Memorable Kentucky Derby, Oaks; Continued Success of 'Downs After Dark' Night Racing; Rachel,Blame Among Spring Meet Highlights

Jul 05, 2010 John Asher

Memorable renewals of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I), won by WinStar Farm’s homebred Super Saver, and the Kentucky Oaks (GIII), won by a nose by Blind Luck: brilliant performances by reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and rising star Blame; and four exciting evenings of “Downs After Dark” night racing were among the most magical moments of the 42-day Spring Meet at Churchill downs that concluded on Sunday, July 4.

The central human figure in many of the meet’s brightest moments moments was jockey Calvin Borel, who not only achieved his 1,000th career victory beneath the Twin Spires during the meet, but also won his first Spring Meet riding title.  He piloted Super Saver to victory in the Run for the Roses, an unprecedented third Kentucky Derby victory in four years, and was aboard for Rachel Alexandra’s return to form as the 2009 Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner took the Fleur de Lis Handicap (GII) by 10 ½ lengths for her first victory of the year.

“Our renewals of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, run under vastly different weather conditions, were among the most successful in history and American racing’s greatest weekend continues to display the best of the sports and entertainment aspects our industry offers,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs. “Our ‘Downs After Dark’ night racing is now clearly established as an entertainment option that is attractive to a wide range of age groups and all segments of the population in our city and region.  We were disappointed that overall field sizes during the meet were not as large as our fans would prefer, but that is an industry-wide concern and we thank our horsemen who worked hard to participate in our Spring Meet.  We look ahead to our Fall Meet and the return of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships to our track for the next two years.”

Borel guided Super Saver to a 2 ½-length victory over Ice Box over a sloppy track in the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) before a crowd of 155,804, sixth-largest in Derby history and easily the largest attendance for a renewal of the Derby run over a wet track. The huge crowd that endured nearly day-long rains was rewarded when the clouds parted as the field stepped onto the track for the Kentucky Derby post parade and the sun was shining for both for the traditional singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and the famed race itself.

Super Saver provided trainer Todd Pletcher with his first victory in the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher, who sent four runners in this year’s Run for the Roses, started his first Kentucky Derby runner in 1990 and prior to this year had saddled 24 starters without getting a sniff of the roses.

On the sun-splashed day before the Derby, Blind Luck rallied to defeat Evening Jewel by a nose in the 136th running of the Kentucky Oaks (GI) before a record crowd of 116,046. Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Blind Luck gave trainer Jerry Hollendorfer his third victory in America’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies.    Wagering on the 2010 renewal of the Kentucky Derby race totaled $112.7 million, a 7.8 percent gain on all-sources betting from the 104.6 million wagered on the 2009 Derby.   Total betting on the 13-race Kentucky Derby Day card rose to $162.7 million, a 4.3 percent increase from the $158.0 million wagered on all Kentucky Derby Day races in 2009.

The 2010 renewal of the Kentucky Oaks was the most successful in history.  A record crowd of 116,046 watched the race and all-sources wagering on the Kentucky Oaks race was $10.6 million, an increase of 55 percent over 2009.  Total wagering on entire 12-race Kentucky Oaks Day racing program reached a record $36.0 million, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year.

The success of Kentucky Derby and Oaks Days allowed Churchill Downs to raise purses for its overnight races for the final three weeks of the Spring Meet by 10 percent.  It was the first in-meet increase in purses at Churchill Downs since a similar 10 percent purse hike in June, 2003.  This increase raised purses by about $3,000 per race.

But continued competitive pressure from tracks in racing states that supplement purses with casino and slot machine revenues or other purse subsidies contributed to a decline in average field size for the meet’s races.  The average field in the 439 races run during the 42-day Spring Meet consisted of 7.75 horses, down from 7.85 in 2009.

“Downs After Dark” night racing continued to be an immensely popular product as this year’s four sessions were conducted under Churchill Downs’ new permanent lights, which were installed over the winter at a cost of approximately $4 million.  The 2009 experiment with night race included three sessions under temporary lights.

An average of 27,139 patrons attended the evening programs, ranging from 24,625 to June 18 to 32,481 on July 2. Two more night programs are scheduled for the Fall Meet: Sunday, Oct. 31 and Friday, Nov. 19.   There was added luster to the June 11 launch of “Downs After Dark” racing under permanent lights retired U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, the one-time Commander of the United States Central Command, visited the track and turned on those lights to usher in the new era at Churchill Downs.

The 2010 renewal of the Kentucky Oaks marked it second year as part of a fundraising partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.  Because of that partnership Komen for the Cure later received a check for $118,346 to help fund the search for a cure for breast cancer.  Another Kentucky Oaks fundraising partnership resulted in a check for $30,000 to benefit Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear’s Horses and Hope breast cancer outreach initiative in Kentucky’s horse industry.

Stonestreet Farm and Harold McCormick’s Rachel Alexandra, the Churchill Downs-based Horse of the Year during her 3-year-old season that included a record-smashing 20 ¼-length victory in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, made two appearances during the Spring Meet.  The first was a narrow loss to Unrivaled Belle in the La Troienne (GII) on the 2010 Kentucky Oaks undercard, but the champion followed that effort on June 12 with her dominant victory in the Fleur de Lis.

Four races after Rachel Alexandra’s return to the winner’s circle, Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Blame established himself as a major player in the handicap ranks and a contender for this fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Churchill Downs by erasing a four-length deficit in midstretch to defeat Battle Plan by three-quarters of a length in the $600,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI).

Other Grade I winners during the meet were owner-trainer Tom McCarthy’s General Quarters, who captured the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic under Bejarano, and Mona de Momma, who defeated eight rivals including Eclipse Award winner Informed Decision, in the Humana Distaff.

Borel, who won the 1999 Fall Meet riding title outright and shared titles in the 2006 and 2009 Fall Meets, rode 52 winners during the Spring Meet to easily outdistance Corey Lanerie for his first Spring Meet title. One of those winners was Gray Hart’s Girl on June 4 to give the 43-year-old Borel his 1,000th Churchill Downs victory. Only Hall of Famer Pat Day (2,482) has ridden more winners at Churchill Downs.

Borel was reunited during the Spring Meet with his 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, who returned to the races on July 4 in the Firecracker Handicap Presented by Thorntons (GII). Owned by Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine, Mine That Bird became the first Kentucky Derby winner to race at Churchill Downs since 2005 winner Giacomo returned to run fourth in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI).  Mine That Bird finished a disappointing eighth in his 2010 debut, but new trainer D. Wayne Lukas continues to hope that the 2009 Derby winner will progress in the coming months and return to Churchill Downs in the fall for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Steve Asmussen won his third consecutive training title, saddling 24 winners. It was the fourth Spring Meet title for the two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, who also has won leading trainer honors four times during the Fall Meet. Asmussen’s roster of winner’s included Stonestreet Stable’s Kantharos, an impressive 9 ½-length winner of the 109th running of the $100,000-added Bashford Manor Stakes (GIII) for 2-year-olds on Saturday, July 3.  The victory by the unbeaten colt stamped him as an early contender for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) in November and the 137th Kentucky Derby (GI) next May.

Trainer Dale Romans, who finished second in the trainers’ race with 19 victories, hit the 500-victory milestone at Churchill Downs when Skipadate won the eighth race on June 17. Romans, a 43-year-old Louisville native, saddled his first winner at Churchill Downs on Nov. 12, 1987.

Maggi Moss earned her second leading owner title as she collected nine winners to edge Ken and Sarah Ramsey.  Moss’ other Churchill Downs title came in the 2007 Spring Meet.

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