Cooler temperatures and the leaves changing colors signify the return of live horse racing to the Louisville area as Churchill Downs, the historic home of the Kentucky Derby, readies to open its 125th Fall Meet on Sunday, Oct. 26.
The popular 26-day stand, which covers a five-week stretch through Sunday, Nov. 30, kicks off in style Sunday with the 10th annual “Stars of Tomorrow I” program, which is entirely devoted to hopeful 2-year-old stars who have aspirations of trail-blazing their way to next year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Longines Kentucky Oaks.
The 10-race opening day program is headlined by a pair of one-mile $58,000-added overnight stakes – the open-company Street Sense (Race 4 at 2:06 p.m. ET) and Rags to Riches for fillies (Race 9 at 4:44 p.m.). Both races serve as local steppingstones to the pair of “Stars of Tomorrow II” $200,000-added, 1 1/16-mile counterparts on Saturday, Nov. 29 – the open Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod for fillies – that are part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks series which award points to the Top 4 finishers (10-4-2-1).
The successful Stars of Tomorrow programs have helped launch the careers of numerous graded stakes winners, including 33 Grade I winners and 19 millionaires led by 2010 Kentucky Derby champ Super Saver; 2011 Preakness and 2012 Met Mile and Clark Handicap winner Shackleford; 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra; 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2013 Stephen Foster Handicap hero Fort Larned; 2012 Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can; and 2013 champion 3-year-old Will Take Charge.
Last year’s renewals included future stakes stars such as Albano, Commanding Curve, General a Rod, Ride On Curlin, Southern Honey, Stonetastic, Tapiture, Tiz Windy and Unbridled Forever.
First post Sunday, as is the case for most of the meeting, is 12:40 p.m. (all times Eastern). The National Weather Service forecast for Louisville calls for ideal fall conditions on Sunday: sunny skies with a high near 68.
There’s a special treat for the kiddos, too, on Sunday as track mascot “Churchill Charlie” will lead a Halloween “Trick or Treat” Costume Parade around the facility starting at Gate 17 at 2:30 p.m.
Over the course of the meet, horsemen will have ample opportunities to uncork promising juveniles or seek year-end graded-stakes glory. All told, 13 stakes races cumulatively worth $2.032 million – which includes a quartet of overnight stakes – will be run during the fall stand. Meanwhile, bettors are certain to be challenged by the competitive Fall Meet racing that typically pits the fastest and battle-tested horses against the recently freshened year-end bloomers.
With a compact 26-day schedule and not as many competing race meets at year’s end, the Fall Meet traditionally offers larger fields. Last fall, the average field size was 8.84 horses per race compared to the 7.29 and 7.70 at this year’s Spring and September meets, respectively.
The anchor of the lucrative stakes program comes on “Black Friday,” Nov. 28 with the 140th running of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I). The 1 1/8-mile test for 3-year-olds and up annually lures some of the top older horses in North America and is one of five stakes events to be contested over Thanksgiving weekend.
After Sunday’s opener, live racing will be conducted on a Wednesday-Sunday schedule with dark days on Mondays and Tuesdays. Most race days will begin at 12:40 p.m. ET and feature 10 live races. An 11-race program is scheduled Friday, Nov. 14, and 12-race cards are scheduled for Nov. 27-29.
Churchill Downs will have special post times for Friday, Oct. 31 (Halloween) and Saturday, Nov. 1 so the races coincide but don’t overlap with a simulcast of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships from Santa Anita. The Friday, Oct. 31 card will begin at 2 p.m. ET, while the Saturday, Nov. 1 action will commence at 2:15 p.m. ET. All Breeders’ Cup races will be shown between live races on Churchill Downs’ Big Board, the world’s largest 4K ultra-high definition video board, and $2 Bud/Bud Light and $3 Stella Artois drink specials will be offered throughout most of the facility on both days.
The Friday, Nov. 14 program is “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois & Old Forester: Shaken, Not Stirred” – the lone night racing program of the Fall Meet with a first post of 4:30 p.m. ET and nod to James Bond films.
The only other special post time is an 11:30 a.m. early start for Thanksgiving Day at Churchill Downs – a Louisville tradition since 1969 where more than 7,000 turkey dinners are served with all the trimmings, making it the largest number anywhere in the region.
Other special events throughout the Fall Meet include Pigskins and Ponies every Saturday (except Nov. 1) in the Plaza with college football games on the Plaza video board, drink specials ($2 Bud/Bud Light, $3 Stella Artois and $1 Pepsi products and bottled water) and tailgate-style food from the Plaza Grill. Churchill Downs will offer free admission to college students every Saturday with a current student I.D.
Family Adventure Day Presented by Kroger, which was a hit for families during the Spring and September meets, returns Sunday, Nov. 9 with plenty of games and activities for children while the adults enjoy an exciting day of horse racing.
The “Who’s the Champ? Betting Challenge” returns for the final three Sundays of the Fall Meet (Nov. 16, 23 and 30) with lucrative prizes being awarded to the Top 3 entrants with the most profitable $2 Win/Place mythical wagers on Races 3-8. The challenge is $35 to enter ($30 for TSC Elite members).
Lastly, Churchill Downs will conclude its meet on Sunday, Nov. 30 with Fan Appreciation Day featuring $1 draft Bud/Bud Light, $1 22-ounce Pepsi products, $1 bottled water and $1 hot dogs. Also, the first 5,000 fans through admission gates will receive a voucher that can be redeemed for a free 2015 calendar that features classic Churchill Downs and Kentucky Derby imagery, courtesy of Humana.
Jockey Julien Leparoux could enter the Fall Meet with a chance to collect his 2,000th career win (he began Thursday’s action at Keeneland with 1,995 victories). Also, Robby Albarado is just five wins shy of becoming only the third rider to win 1,000 races at Churchill Downs. He has 995 local wins and only trails Pat Day (2,482) and Calvin Borel (1,167) in the all-time standings.
Meanwhile, record-breaking owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who collected their 22nd Churchill Downs leading owners’ title in September, are two wins away from their 400th local victory.
The defending Fall Meet champs are jockey Corey Lanerie (36 wins), trainer Mike Maker (16) and the Ramseys (18).
Larry Collmus will describe action in what will be his final meet as track announcer at Churchill Downs (in addition to being the voice of Gulfstream Park’s winter meet he’ll be the NYRA announcer starting in April 2015). While Collmus is attending to Breeders’ Cup duties for NBC, Mike Battaglia, the voice of Churchill Downs from 1978-96, will substitute Oct. 29-Nov. 2.
General admission to Churchill Downs is $3 ($1 for senior citizens age 60 and up; $10 for Downs After Dark). Children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking is free in the Longfield Avenue lot (Gates 10 & 12) and $3 in all other lots. Valet parking is $5.
Free seating is available daily over a first-come, first-serve basis in sections 113-118. Premium reserved seats in the Matt Winn Dining Room, Third Floor Box Seats, Millionaires Row, Jockey Club Suites, Finish Line Suites and Skye Terrace can be purchased online at ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets, in person at the Gate 1 box office (open most race days from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) or by calling (502) 636-4400.
For more information, call (502) 636-4400 or visit www.churchilldowns.com.