Churchill Downs Racetrack (“CDRT”)concluded its 140th Spring Meet on Sunday, June 29 after 38 days of racing highlighted by spectacular renewals of the $2 million guaranteed Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I); the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI); the unveiling of the track’s spectacular $12 million Panasonic “Big Board” and $17 million Rooftop and Grandstand Terrace; and the continued success of its “Opening Night” and “Downs After Dark” night racing programs.
Along with near-record attendance and wagering levels for the 140th renewals of the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) won by favored California Chrome and the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) that featured an emphatic victory by favored Untapable, the 2014 Spring Meet stakes program featured a total of six Grade I races and stirring performances by some of the brightest equine stars in American racing. Mort Fink’s two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan edged Seek Again to win a second consecutive running of the $500,000-added Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI); Anita Cauley’s local favorite On Fire Baby won the $300,000-added La Troienne Presented by World Series of Polo (GI); Midnight Lucky dazzled in a 4 ½-length romp in the $300,000-added Humana Distaff (GI); and Randy Patterson’s former claiming horse Moonshine Mullin completed a first-ever sweep of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI) and the $300,000-added Alysheba Presented by Besilu Stables (GII) for veteran trainer Randy Morse. Also, Valiant Boy, the 2012 Arabian Horse of the Year, returned to Churchill Downs on Stephen Foster night for a second straight triumph in the $100,000 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup (GI) for Arabian horses.
In the Spring Meet’s non-equine contests, jockeys Corey Lanerie, Julien Leparoux and Rosie Napravnik compiled numbers during the meet, as did record-setting leading trainer Steve Asmussen and top owner Maggi Moss.
But those successes shared the Spring Meet stage with concern over the declining size of daily racing fields during the April 26-June 29 racing session. The average field in the 372 races conducted during the meet was comprised of 7.29 horses, a decline from an average of 7.78 horses-per-race during the 2013 Spring Meet, which also consisted of 38 racing days. The decline in the horse population and competition for available horses, especially those in mid-to-lower level claiming races, prompted Churchill Downs to run 372 races during the Spring Meet, compared to 396 races run during the spring of 2013.
“Our Spring Meet was a success on many levels, headed by continued growth in Kentucky Derby and Oaks Week, the ongoing popularity of night racing, the excitement surrounding the introduction of our ‘Big Board’ and a range of new events and activities introduced in our new Grandstand Terrace and Pavilion venue and the Paddock Plaza, now in its second year,” Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery said. “Our four night racing programs – including our ‘Opening Night’ celebration and a trio of ‘Downs After Dark’ events – showed that our market continues to love the unique combination of racing, food, music and dancing under the lights. And a pair of new ‘Family Adventure Days’ introduced by our team this spring resulted in an impressive and enthusiastic response from families in the region and is a concept that displayed potential for growth in future meets.
“The smaller field sizes are the results of a combination of factors that include years of substantial decline in the North American foal crop and increased regional competition for horses from racetracks in Indiana and Ohio with purses fed by casino revenues. Churchill Downs race purses have remained basically flat in recent years. We deeply appreciate the efforts of owners and trainers who have supported us during this meet. We have a talented and dedicated team in our racing office and our entire team is working on ways to improve those field size numbers in our upcoming September and Fall racing meets and further down the road.”
Daily purses averaged $532,903 over the meet’s 38 days, a slight decrease from the 2013 average of $534,942. With 24 fewer races run this year, purses paid during the just-completed meet totaled $20,250,300, compared with total purses of $20,327,798 paid a year earlier.
The 2014 Spring Meet got off to an impressive start with a strong Kentucky Derby Week culminated by stirring victories by favorites in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, the track’s signature races that have been run annually and without interruption since 1875.
Steve Coburn and Perry Martin’s homebred California Chrome, trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman and ridden by Victor Espinoza, won the famed “Run for the Roses” to provide the California-bred colt’s owners and trainer with their first successes in America’s greatest race. With the win, Sherman became the oldest trainer to saddle a winner of the Kentucky Derby. It was the second Kentucky Derby victory for Espinoza, who had won its 2002 running aboard War Emblem.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred Untapable dominated the Longines Kentucky Oaks, providing her owner/breeder, trainer Steve Asmussen and Napravnik with their second victories in America’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies. Winchell and Asmussen had won the 2005 Oaks with Summerly, while the 26-year-old Napravnik – the only woman his history to ride a Kentucky Oaks winner – captured the race for the second time in three years.
Perfect weather on the first Saturday in May helped attract 164,906 Kentucky Derby Day patrons – the second largest crowd in history – and wagering was brisk on-track, via TwinSpires.com and other online wagering platforms and at satellite wagering centers across North America. On-track wagering on the Derby race totaled $11.9 million, an increase of 4 percent from the 2013 total. On-track wagering on the Derby program of $23.4 million was an 11 percent increase from 2013. Wagering from all-sources on the Kentucky Derby race card totaled $186.6 million, an increase of 1 percent over the 2013 total of $184.6 million.
One day earlier 113,071 fans – the third-largest attendance in the history of the event – gathered at Churchill Downs for the 140th running of the Kentucky Oaks. Wagering from all sources ranked as the second-highest all time on both the full 12-race Kentucky Oaks Day card and on the Kentucky Oaks race. All-sources wagering on the entire card totaled $43.2 million, a decrease of 5.7 percent from the 2013 total of $45.8 million. All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Oaks race dropped 1.9 percent to $14.1 million from 2013’s record $14.4 million. On-track wagering on the Oaks Day race card was the fourth-highest of all-time, coming in at $11.8 million, a 3 percent decrease from 2013’s near-record $12.2 million. On-track wagering on the Oaks race decreased 3 percent to $3 million from 2013’s record $3.1 million.
All-sources handle for Kentucky Derby Week – beginning with the “Opening Night” celebration on Saturday April 26, through Derby Day, Saturday, May 3, was $253.8 million. The total was down 2 percent from 2013’s $258.5 million. Attendance for those five days was up 5 percent to 348,530 from 331,922 in 2013.
Festivities surrounding the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks continued to generate important funds for partner charities. Checks totaling $127,000 were presented on Saturday, June 13 to three charitable agencies:
- $57,000 was presented to Bright Pink, a Chicago-based non-profit organization focused on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women along with support for high-risk individuals. This was Bright Pink’s first year as the Kentucky Oaks’ women’s health partner, a focus that dates to 2009 when the event’s “Ladies First” theme was introduced. With the donation to Bright Pink, Churchill Downs has donated $589,000 to its Kentucky Oaks women’s health partners since 2009.
- 30,000 was presented to Horses and Hope, the cancer outreach initiative in Kentucky’s horse industry launched by Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear. The donation represents $1 from each on-track sale of the “Oaks Lily,” the signature drink of the Kentucky Oaks, and will support Horses and Hope’s programs at racetracks and farms in Kentucky’s horse industry. With its 2014 donation, Churchill Downs has donated $180,000 to Horses and Hope during its six-year Kentucky Oaks partnership.
- Louisville-based food bank Dare to Care received a donation of $40,000 from the from the fifth annual “Taste of Derby Presented by Stella Artois” celebration in the North Wing Lobby of Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center on Thursday, May 1. The celebration of racing cuisine, celebrity and style attracted more than 1,500 patrons. Since the inaugural “Taste of Derby” in 2010, Churchill Downs has donated nearly $350,000 to hunger relief organizations in its home region and around the world.
Night racing at Churchill Downs and its unique blend of music, food, entertainment and top quality racing – introduced in 2009 – continued to attract large and enthusiastic crowds as the entertainment concept entered its sixth year. Four night racing sessions – including “Opening Night,” the “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka”/Stephen Foster Handicap program on Saturday, June 14, and “Downs After Dark” Friday programs on June 20 and 27 – attracted a total attendance of 78,559. The June 14 session included the introduction of the Terrace Lounge and VIP Cabanas, an outdoor venue for patrons 21-and-over located in the Clubhouse Terrace that attracted sellout crowds in each of its first three “Downs After Dark” sessions.
Jockey Corey Lanerie rode 57 winners during the Spring Meet to collect his third consecutive riding title and fifth overall at Churchill Downs, a total that includes two Spring Meet crowns. Highlights of the meet for the 39-year-old native of Lafayette, La. included a win in the Grade II Fleur De Lis Presented by Etihad Airways and his first Kentucky Derby mount. Lanerie finished 16th in Derby 140 aboard Harry’s Holiday.
Napravnik’s Spring Meet was cut short when she suffered a shoulder injury in a June 15 training mishap and missed the meet’s final nine racing days, but her 31 victories to that point earned her a tie with Julien Leparoux for second in the race for leading rider. She had set a record for wins by a female rider during a racing meet at Churchill Downs when she piloted 45 winners during the 2013 Spring Meet, a total that surpassed a standard established in the spring of 1996 by retired jockey and current NBC Sports analyst Donna Barton Brothers. Napravnik earned five stakes victories during the meet topped by her Grade I triumphs in the Kentucky Oaks and the Humana Distaff, and also established a Churchill Downs record for wins in a single day by a female rider when she guided five horses into the winner’s circle on May 25. The previous record of four wins on a single program had also been set by Barton Brothers in the 1996 Spring Meet.
Leparoux, a nine-time Churchill Downs riding leader, enjoyed his strong Spring Meet after he returned to Kentucky following two years of riding at Southern California racetracks.
A veteran of the Churchill Downs jockey colony and a fresh new face achieved milestones during the meet. Veteran Joe Johnson, a 46-year-old native of Knottsville, Ky., earned his 1,000th career victory aboard Silver Antelope in the 10th race on June 5. At the other end of the spectrum, 16-year-old apprentice jockey Juan Saez earned his first victories at Churchill Downs and in the United States when he won the opening two races on June 20. Saez, a native of Panama and the younger brother of New York-based jockey Luis Saez, arrived late in the Spring Meet and finished with five victories.
Apprentice Erin Walker, 29, also achieved a personal milestone when she rode her first Churchill Downs winner on June 19.
The Kentucky Oaks victory by Untapable was the marquee moment of the meet for trainer Steve Asmussen, who saddled 21 winners to earn a record-extending 14th title as leading trainer at Churchill Downs. Asmussen pulled away late in the final week to emerge with his seventh Spring Meet crown following a tight battle with Dale Romans (16 wins), Mike Maker (16) and Brad Cox (15). The 48-year-old Asmussen also earned stakes victories during the meet with Tapiture in the Matt Winn (GIII), Cinco Charlie in the Bashford Manor (GIII), Regally Ready in the Opening Verse and Speedinthruthecity in the Roxelana. Romans won major Spring Meet stakes events with Silver Max in the Firecracker (GII) and Molly Morgan in the Fleur De Lis (GII).
Maggi Moss sent seven horses into the winner’s circle during the Spring Meet to earn her third Churchill Downs “leading owner” title. A meet highlight for the Des Moines, Iowa-based Moss came when she teamed with Napravnik and trainer Tom Amoss for a victory by Delaunay in the Aristides (GIII) on May 31. The 2014 title by Moss snapped a string of three consecutive leading owner titles by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who swept the Spring Meet, September and Fall Meet crowns in 2013 and have earned a record 21 career leading owner titles at the Louisville track. Six owners collected four wins during the meet to tie for second behind Moss, who earned her earlier crowns at Churchill Downs in the Spring Meets in 2007 and 2010.
The Spring Meet stakes schedule was launched with a victory in the “Opening Night” Derby Trial (GIII) by Embellishing Bob, who was awarded the victory by stewards following the disqualification of apparent winner Bayern. Other notable stakes victories were earned by Central Banker in the Churchill Downs (GII), Coffee Clique in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (GII), Global View in the American Turf (GII), Fiftyshadesofgold in the Eight Belles (GIII), Honey Hues in the Early Times Mint Julep (GIII), Southern Honey in the Winning Colors (GIII), War Dancer in the Louisville Handicap (GIII), Aurelia’s Belle in the Regret (GIII), Marchman in the Twin Spires Turf Sprint (GIII), Promise Me Silver in the Debutante, Good Lord in the Kelly’s Landing, A Little Bit Sassy in the Edgewood and Sweet Cassiopeia in the Unbridled Sidney.
Churchill Downs racing resumes in its September Meet, scheduled over 12 dates (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) from Sept. 5-28. The track’s 26-date Fall Meet is set for Oct. 26-Nov. 30.