Unforgettable Clark Handicap Finish Highlights Exciting, Challenging 2013 Fall Meet at Churchill Downs

Dec 02, 2013 John Asher

A dramatic renewal of the $550,700 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I) won in heart-pounding fashion by Willis D. Horton’s Will Take Charge was the unquestionable highlight of a compelling racing season, but business levels during Churchill Downs’ 25-day Fall Meet that concluded on Saturday, Nov. 30 felt the impact of continued growth of competition from casinos and racetracks with purses that benefit from additional gaming revenues, along with a run of uncommonly damp and cold weather through the duration of the meet.

The three-day Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend that annually wraps up the Fall Meet disappointed few, with on-track highlights topped by the sizzling renewal of the Clark, a race that was founded along with the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in 1875; an emotional farewell to the blue-blooded Wine Princess in the Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving Day; and winning performances by promising 2-year-olds Vexed and Tapiture in stakes races on the popular “Stars of Tomorrow II” programs on Saturday’s closing day program.

But the overall Oct. 27-Nov. 30 meet had difficulty in building momentum, and the combination of continued growth and maturation of regional casinos, growing competition from racetracks with purses fueled by gaming revenues and the meet’s weather woes prompted track officials to enact a reduction in race purses during the meet’s final week.

“We had many highlights during our Fall Meet as our Thanksgiving Weekend racing and hospitality efforts were strong, and our ’Stars of Tomorrow’ programs for 2-year-olds remained popular,” Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery said. “But those successes were accompanied by challenges that impacted our product and our business levels. Along with ongoing competition from casinos in our market that have been part of the scene now for 15 years, competition for both horses and wagering dollars from racetracks that benefit from casino and gaming revenues continues to intensify.

“Those tracks are luring stables and horses from our Kentucky market and Churchill Downs meets, which puts pressure on our efforts to maintain large and competitive fields of horses. That competitive pressure was exacerbated this fall when we encountered unusually wet and cool weather that cost us several days of turf racing, which made it more difficult to maintain large and attractive field sizes. We could have been luckier with the weather, but given the strengthening of our ongoing competition, this meet would have been challenging if each day had been sunny and warm.”

Despite four additional racing days, total purses paid during the meet were down from a year ago. The daily purse total for 2013 was $8,222,029, down from $8,894,694 paid in the 21-day session of 2012.

The daily average for purses paid during the 25 racing days of Fall Meet 2013 was $328,881, a decline of 22.4% from the average of $423,557 over 21 racing days in 2012.

The size of the average racing field at Churchill Downs during the 25-day session was 8.84 horses, a decrease from the average of 9.56 horses-per-race during the 21-day meet of 2012.

Damp and cold weather was a consistent concern for racing scheduled for the turf during the meet, and more than one-third of the races scheduled for that surface were taken off the grass because of wet or frozen course conditions and moved to the main track. A total of 52 races were drawn for the Matt Winn Turf Course, but weather issues forced 20 to be transferred to the main track. Following the announcement of those changes, a total of 74 horses were scratched from those races.

While the performances of Clark Handicap winner Will Take Charge and some of the rising 2-year-olds on display in Fall Meet helped validate those horses as important rising stars in American racing, the winners the meet’s “human races” were established stars who had already enjoyed significant success beneath the Twin Spires.

Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey completed a historic year at Churchill Downs by earning the Fall Meet crown for “Leading Owner” to extend their record for titles at the track to 21 and become the first owners to collect three of those crowns in a calendar year. The Nicholasville, Ky. couple sent 19 of their horses into the winner’s circle to finish well ahead of runner-up Maggi Moss to earn their 11th Fall Meet title. Moss had nine winners from only 22 starts during the meet. The Ramseys earlier won the Spring Meet title and earned the “Leading Owner” award in the new September Meet.

Corey Lanerie collected 36 wins during the Fall Meet and cruised to his fourth “Leading Jockey” crown and his second straight Fall Meet title at Churchill Downs. The native of Lafayette, La. finished well ahead of runner-up Julien Leparoux, who closed strongly to finish with 20 wins. Shaun Bridgmohan (19), Miguel Mena (18) and Leandro Goncalves (17) also enjoyed strong meets. The Fall Meet crown was the latest in a two-year run during which Lanerie has won four of the last five “Leading Jockey” titles at Churchill Downs.

Dylan Davis collected 13 victories and was the meet’s top apprentice jockey. The 19-year-old Davis was also the top apprentice during the tracks 2013 Spring Meet and September Meet.

Mike Maker closed with a rush during the meet’s final week to surpass Bret Calhoun to take the Fall Meet’s “Leading Trainer” honors. Maker finished with 16 victories and Calhoun, who led the trainers’ race through the first four weeks of the meet, had 13 wins. Maker won the honor for the fifth time, with three of those coming in the Fall Meet. Dale Romans finished third in the “Leading Trainer” race with 10 wins, just ahead of Steve Asmussen (9), Chris Richard (8) and Tom Amoss and Ian Wilkes (tied at seven).

Any discussion of equine competition during the meet must start with the riveting 139th running of the Clark Handicap, won in dramatic fashion on the next-to-last day of the meet by Will Take Charge, who nipped the favored Game On Dude in the final jump of the 1 1/8-mile race. Luis Saez rode the winner for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won his second Clark Handicap and earned his first stakes victory at Churchill Downs since 2009.

The race was billed as a championship showdown between two of the biggest stars in American racing and it did not disappoint. Both horses had Eclipse Award championships on the line as Will Take Charge was bidding for the award that goes to the nation’s top 3-year-old, and Game On Dude was in the hunt for both “Horse of the Year” and champion older horse.

Two-year-old stars that could emerge as contenders for the 2014 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) were at center stage in a pair of stakes races on the “Stars of Tomorrow II” program devoted to racing’s juveniles that closed out the Fall Meet. The brightest of those young stars on closing day were Ron Winchell’s Tapiture, who earned his first victory in four tries for Asmussen with an authoritative 4 ¼-length victory in the $175,200 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII), and Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Vexed, who established herself as an early favorite for the 2014 Longines Kentucky Oaks with her triumph in the $169,050 Golden Rod Stakes (GII) for fillies.

Both Tapiture and Vexed earned 10 points on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” and “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” systems that will determine the eligibility of horses to complete in the maximum fields of 20 3-year-olds for the Kentucky Derby and 14 3-year-old fillies for the Kentucky Oaks. Each race is part of the “Prep Season” in their respective  series and points were awarded to their Top 4 finishes on a 10-4-2-1 scale.

The Golden Rod win by the homebred Vexed was a milestone triumph for Claiborne Farm. It was the 32nd stakes win at Churchill Downs for the iconic breeding and racing farm in Paris, Ky., which pulled it into a tie with another Bluegrass legend – Calumet Farm – for the most stakes wins by an owner in the 139-year history of the Louisville track.

Vexed had finished second to Tony Holmes, Breffini Farms and Indian Charlie Syndicate’s Clever Beauty in the $62,700 Rags to Riches overnight stakes on Oct. 27, the first “Stars of Tomorrow” program of racing for 2-year-olds in the Fall Meet. The companion race for males on that day was the $61,800 Street Sense overnight stakes, which was won by John C. Oxley’s Coastline.

Becky Winemiller’s regally-bred Wine Princess won the 98th running of the $165,300 Falls City Handicap (GII) for older fillies and mares on Thanksgiving Day and the Steve Margolis-trained daughter of Horses of the Year Ghostzapper and Azeri made the final start of her career. In that victory she reversed the order of an earlier Fall Meet loss when she was runner-up to Phil Sims and Jerry Namy’s Don’t Tell Sophia in the $165,200 Chilukki (GII).

Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Emotional Kitten, trained by Wesley Ward, charged from far back under Victor Espinoza to win the $205,100 Mrs. Revere Stakes (GII) for 3-year-old fillies on turf during the Nov. 16 “Downs After Dark” program. It was the only stakes win during the fall racing session for the meet’s leading owners. The daughter of Kitten’s Joy shared the evening’s spotlight with Tucci Stable’s Canadian invader River Seven, who won the $115,400 Commonwealth Turf (GIII) for 3-year-olds under Shaun Bridgmohan and gave Toronto-based trainer Nick Gonzalez his first stakes victory at Churchill Downs.

Phipps Stable’s Abaco charged from last under jockey Rosie Napravnik to win the $112,800 Cardinal Handicap (GIII) for fillies and mares three-and-up on the turf for trainer Shug McGaughey, the Kentucky-born Hall of Fame conditioner who won his first Kentucky Derby with Stuart S. Janney III and Phipps Stable’s Orb on the first Saturday in May.

The turf course was the scene of one of the meet’s biggest upsets when Maribel Ruelas’ 45-1 shot Potomac River won the $116,300 River City Handicap (GIII) for older horses on turf by two lengths under jockey Juan Vargas and trainer Sergio Baez. The surprise win by Potomac River was the first stakes win at Churchill Downs for the owner, trainer and jockey.

Racing will return to Churchill Downs on Saturday, April 26, 2014 – the date for the “Opening Night” celebration under the lights that starts both Kentucky Derby Week and the track’s April 26-June 29 Spring Meet.  The 140th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands is scheduled for Saturday, May 3, while the 140th Longines Kentucky Oaks will be run one day earlier.

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