Record Kentucky Derby, Strong Nights, Unusual Weather Combine for Memorable Spring Meet

Jul 03, 2012 John Asher

An eventful and memorable Spring Meet at Churchill Downs Racetrack that included an attendance record for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I); continued strength of “Downs After Dark” night racing that included the first running of the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap under the lights; and weather challenges posed by severe storms, hailstones and record heat wound to a close under the historic track’s permanent lights on Sunday, July 1.

The $2 million-guaranteed Kentucky Derby and the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (GI) contributed to a positive opening week of the April 28-July 1 racing season with business levels that were among the strongest in the history of the classic races that debuted in 1875 and have been renewed annually without interruption since.  But despite the strong renewals of the Derby and Oaks and the continued strength of “Downs After Dark” celebrations in the fourth year of night racing at Churchill Downs, the track’s daily racing program was challenged by a decline in the average size of its race fields as competition intensified from racing states with purses supplemented by casino gambling revenues and the overall supply of racing Thoroughbreds continued its recent decline.

“It sounds like a cliché, but our Spring Meet truly offered a taste of just about everything for our on-track fans, our horsemen, jockeys and members of our racetrack team, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of all who helped us enjoy success under often challenging circumstances,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack.  “The meet’s high points are clearly the continued growth and enduring attraction of both the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, two of America’s great entertainment and sports events.  Our ‘Downs After Dark’ night racing programs were wonderful as we experimented with Saturday night schedules and the inclusion of major stakes races as part of those events for the first time.  And our racetrack team and horsemen displayed resilience and flexibility in the face of unusually harsh spring weather.

“Our racing team did a remarkable job in working with horsemen to present a strong daily racing product, but its work was made significantly difficult this year  by the growing lure of racing at tracks in states where purses are supplemented by casino revenues – a roster that now includes New York tracks.  We deeply appreciate the loyalty and cooperation displayed by owners and trainers who strongly supported Churchill Downs racing this spring.  But we continue to compete on a playing field with those tracks that is far from level and the impact of that competition becomes more evident with each racing meet.”

The Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 5 established an attendance record for the second consecutive year as 165,307 fans looked on as Reddam Racing LLC’s I’ll Have Another rallied to edge the pace-setting Bodemeister in Kentucky Derby 138.  The victory in the Derby was the first for owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez.

The attendance mark, which eclipsed the standard of 163,628 set just one year earlier, was only one highlight of a Kentucky Derby Day that registered across-the-board wagering increases.

Wagering from all-sources on the Kentucky Derby race card was a record $187.0 million, an increase of 13.2 percent from the 2011 total of $165.2 million. The previous record for all-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby race card totaled $175.1 million and was established in 2006.

All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby was also record setting, up 18.8 percent from 112.0 million to $133.1 million.  The previous record for all-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby race was $118.4 million and was established in 2006.  On-track wagering on the Derby rose 7.1 percent from $11.5 million to $12.3 million, breaking the previous record of $12.1 million, established in 2008. On-track wagering on the Derby program increased 1.3 percent to $23.7 million.

The Kentucky Oaks on Friday, May 4 made history when Brereton C. Jones’ homebred Believe You Can won the race under jockey Rosie Napravnik, who became the first female jockey to win America’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies.  The winning trainer was Kentucky native J. Larry Jones, who also teamed with owner-breeder Brereton Jones to win the 2008 Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell.

Kentucky Oaks Day was also a business success as it attracted record total wagering for the second consecutive year and near-record attendance.  A crowd of 112,552 – the third-largest in history – watched the race on an Oaks Day during which the track experienced a notable and historic brush with Mother Nature.  A threat of imminent severe weather prompted track officials to temporarily evacuate the infield with three races – including the Kentucky Oaks – remaining on the 12-race program.  The evacuation was the first in the history of the Kentucky Oaks and Derby.  The worst of the weather missed Churchill Downs and the program resumed after a delay of 52 minutes.

Despite the weather, wagering from all sources on the full 12-race Kentucky Oaks Day race card totaled a record $39.9 million, an increase of 6.5 percent from the record 2011 total of $37.5 million. All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Oaks race rose 3.4 percent to $11.8 million. On-track wagering on the Oaks Day program dropped 3.7 percent to $11.6 million and betting on the Oaks race fell 12.8 percent to $2.6 million.

Weather was a major story throughout the meet, including bookend bouts with severe thunderstorms on the first and final racing days of the meet.  Softball-sized hail pounded the historic track during its “Opening Night” celebration on Saturday, April 28, and rough weather provided a bookend when a severe thunderstorm packing heavy rain, wind and lightning swept over the track on the evening of Sunday, July 1, the closing night of the meet, and racing programs on both evenings had weather delays of nearly an hour.  Three days before the latter, searing triple-digit heat prompted the cancellation of the track’s racing program on Thursday, June 28.  It was the first heat-related cancellation in the 138-year history of Churchill Downs and its racing programs for Friday, June 29 and Sunday, July 1 were moved to nighttime schedules to avoid the worst of an extended, record-shattering heat wave.  The rare weather-related cancellation was the second for Churchill Downs in just over a year.  The track lost a day of racing in its 2011 Spring Meet after a tornado roared through its stable area.

Churchill Downs had continued success with its “Downs After Dark” night racing programs, with all of its formal under-the-lights racing sessions conducted for the first time on Saturday nights.  They included the second “Opening Night” party that kicked off the Spring Meet and Kentucky Derby Week and the first nighttime running of the Grade I, $400,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap, which was also part of the Breeders’ Cup’s “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series for the first time.  The Opening Night celebration attracted 26,527 despite the hailstorm that swept over the track midway through the program, and 25,417 gathered beneath the famed Twin Spires for the Stephen Foster Handicap program, which also included three other stakes races.  For the first time, all “Downs After Dark” programs included racing under the lights on June 2 and June 30, featured graded stakes races along with their distinctive dining and entertainment attractions.  The June 2 program attracted 21,827 and 22,417 attended the June 30 session.  Average attendance for the four “Downs After Dark” programs was 24,047.

While the Spring Meet’s biggest events turned in strong performances despite challenges from turbulent weather, the daily racing program at the historic track joined others at tracks across America that have encountered an ongoing decline in field sizes.  The 38-day racing program, shortened by one day because of the heat-related cancellation during its final week, consisted of 395 races that featured 3,048 betting interests for an average of 7.7 horses-per-race.

The previous year’s Spring Meet, which also featured 38 racing days, featured 410 races with 3,258 betting interests and an average field of 7.9 horses per race.  Churchill Downs was able to make up races lost to its lone weather-related cancellation in 2011, but the races from the lost program in 2012 could not be made up during the just-concluded session.

Purses paid during the 2012 Spring Meet totaled $20,890,859, with an average of $549,759 in purses paid each day.  Both figures reflect a decline of one percent from the 2011 Spring Meet, which paid total purses of $21,099,187 for a daily average of $555,242.

The Kentucky Derby victory by I’ll Have Another and the Kentucky Oaks heroics by Believe You Can topped a list of memorable performances by equine stars of the Spring Meet.  Those efforts include a dramatic victory by Ron the Greek, who defeated favored Wise Dan in the Stephen Foster Handicap earned a “Win and You’re In” berth in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and travel expenses to the Nov. 3 race at Santa Anita; a track-record victory in the Grade I Humana Distaff by Groupie Doll, co-owned by the father-son team of co-breeder Fred Bradley and trainer William “Buff” Bradley; and a front-running victory in the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic by Little Mike, one of three Kentucky Derby weekend stakes victories by horses trained by Dale Romans.

Other memorable stakes performances were turned in by Royal Delta, the nation’s reigning 3-year-old filly champion who notched her first victory of 2012 with an eight-length victory in the Grade II Fleur De Lis on the Stephen Foster Handicap undercard; a dazzling victory by the Romans-trained Shackleford, fourth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and winner of the Preakness (GI), in the Grade II Churchill Downs on Derby Day; a track record-setting victory at 1 1/16 miles by Successful Dan in the Alysheba (GII) on Kentucky Oaks Day; a pair of stakes victories with promising 2-year-olds trained by veteran Garry Simms, who saddled unbeatens Circle Unbroken to win the 111th running of the Bashford Manor (GIII) and Blueeyesintherein in the 112th Debutante (GIII); and an upset victory on yielding turf by the Romans-trained Guys Reward in the Grade II Firecracker Handicap on the meet’s closing night.

In the ‘human races’ of the Spring Meet, jockey Corey Lanerie used a stellar month of June to secure his first title of “Leading Jockey” at Churchill Downs.  Past champions Dale Romans and Richard and Karen Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. earned new titles as the meet’s leading trainer and owner, respectively.

Lanerie, in a performance reminiscent of the Churchill Downs dominance once displayed by retired all-time win leader and Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, broke open a tight race with eventual runner-up Shaun Bridgmohan with a scorching month of June to complete the 38-day meet with 71 victories.  At the end of racing on the Memorial Day program on May 28, Lanerie trailed Bridgmohan 26-24 in total victories.  But it was all Lanerie down the stretch as he won 47 races to 21 for Bridgmohan during the final 19 days of racing from May 31-July 1 and finished 24 wins ahead of that rival.  Lanerie won on 28.1 percent of his mounts during that torrid stretch.

The 38-year-old native of Lafayette, La. Averaged 1.87 victories per day during the 38-day session, the highest average daily win rate since Hall of Fame jockey Steve Brooks won 46 races during the 19-day spring racing session in 1948. One of the highlights of Lanerie’s first riding title at Churchill Downs came on May 27 when he scored a career-best six victories, which tied for the second-highest one-day total in track history.  Brooks also enjoyed a six-win day on his way to his 1948 riding title at Churchill Downs.

Day and Julien Leparoux share the track record for victories in a single day of racing with seven.

Romans, a 46-year-old native of Louisville, earned his ninth Churchill Downs training title, but his first since the 2006 Spring Meet, by saddling 23 winners during the meet.  Romans had six more wins than runner-up Tom Amoss as he collected his seventh Spring Meet title.  Five of his victories came in stakes races.

Also notable in the final Spring Meet training standings was the performance of veteran Garry Simms, whose small stable compiled a record of 7-2-0 in 10 races, which included his stakes wins in the Bashford Manor and Debutante.  Simms has won back-to-back runnings of the Debutante.

All-time Churchill Downs training leader Bill Mott collected two more stakes notable victories during the meet with Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster Handicap and Royal Delta in the Fleur De Lis.  He ended the spring meet with seven wins to raise his Churchill Downs victory total to 665.  Romans is next on the track’s career win list with 562 victories.

Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. earned 15 wins to collect its second consecutive title as leading owner of the Spring Meet. Paula Haughey’s PTK LLC was second with 11 victories.  The Papieses’ stable won last year’s crown with eight victories. 

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