It isn’t easy for a racing secretary to hang 128 pounds on a star horse in a handicap race such as Saturday night’s $150,000 Firecracker Handicap (Grade II), but Churchill Downs’ Director of Racing Ben Huffman relishes the opportunity.
“I did 128 (pounds) here with Wise Dan and 128 on Curlin in the (2008) Stephen Foster,” Huffman said. “I’ve done several 125s, but for horses that have actually shown up in the entries, 128 is the most.”
Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, the world’s top ranked active runner in the latest Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, heads a field of eight entered for the Firecracker Handicap, one of three stakes races to be run at Churchill Downs on Saturday as part of the “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” nighttime racing program.
Wise Dan, who was made the 2-5 favorite by Churchill Downs’ oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, will give between 11-15 pounds to his six rivals. The next high weights at 117 pounds are Grade III stakes winners Corporate Jungle and Lea.
A handicap is a race where the racing secretary assigns weights to all nominated horses with the theoretical goal of creating a dead-heat at the finish.
“It’s a judgment call,” Huffman said. “It’s not an exact science. Some people say a length is a pound and others say a length is three pounds. A lot of components are involved in assigning the weights.”
Wise Dan carries a six-race win streak into the Firecracker, including five Grade I races. In his two races of 2013, he won the Maker’s 46 Mile (GI) at Keeneland and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI) at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.
“You also look to see who horses have been running against and what they’ve carried in the past,” Huffman said. “Wise Dan is a multiple Grade I winner, he’s the Horse of the Year and he’s the highest-rated horse in training in the world. He’s not running against horrible horses in here, but they are inferior when compared to the best turf miler in the world. Not the best turf miler in the United States…in the world.”
Some are of the opinion that handicap races are a thing of the past and top horses should not be forced to carry more weight in a race due to their previous accomplishments. Huffman doesn’t subscribe to that belief.
“I know handicaps are kind of going out of favor a little bit, but if you’re going to do them then I think you ought to do them right,” Huffman said. “When you have champions running here for equal weights, I personally don’t think we could fill the races. I like doing handicaps for route races and I think they serve a purpose. We don’t weight horses to get them beat. We weight horses to give other horses a chance, especially against champions.”
Champions like Wise Dan have been known to scare off other horses from entering, but Huffman believes it is important to feature the best horses possible at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
“We are Churchill Downs and we are in a racing town with racing fans that love and appreciate horse racing,” Huffman said. “Sometimes these champions cause us to have some short fields, but I know true racing fans appreciate Horses of the Year and Eclipse Champions racing in Louisville, Kentucky. Who wouldn’t want to come out and see the Horse of the Year Wise Dan and horses like Curlin and Rachel Alexandra and Royal Delta and Fort Larned? I’ll sacrifice a couple of runners to get the best horses in the world here for our racing fans in Louisville.”
Wise Dan, who won the Firecracker in 2011 in his turf debut, will break from post two under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. A 6-year-old gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry, Wise Dan is looking to become the first two-time winner of the Firecracker.
The theme for Saturday’s Downs After Dark program is “Star-Spangled Night” and fans are encouraged to dress to impress in red, white and blue for Louisville’s largest pre-Fourth of July holiday celebration. Gates open at 4 p.m. (all times Eastern) and post time for the first race is 6 p.m. The Firecracker will go as Race 9 at 10:11 p.m.
KOBISKIE HOPES MY CORINTHIAN PROVES HIS TALENT AGAIN IN BASHFORD MANOR
Dane Kobiskie thought very highly of My Corinthian since the day he entered his barn and the 2-year-old gelding by Corinthian proved his trainer right when scoring a 7 ½-length debut victory on the turf at Colonial Downs. Kobiskie is hopeful he will flash the same talent in Saturday night’s $100,000-added Bashford Manor (GIII).
“I actually was a little afraid before his first race because I liked him so much,” Kobiskie said. “When a horse shows all the right signs, you just hope he’s as good as you think. It was nice to see him win like that and reassure us. If he had only won by two lengths, I probably would have been disappointed.”
The Bashford Manor, which will go as Race 7 at 9:05 p.m., will be the second career start for My Corinthian and his debut on dirt.
“I like to take some of my 2-year-olds and run them on the turf at Colonial to give them a little easier race,” Kobiskie said. “I’m not concerned about him switching to dirt.”
PTK LLC’s My Corinthian arrived at Kobiskie’s barn at Churchill Downs’ Trackside Training Center on Tuesday. Another horse arriving in Louisville from the Mid-Atlantic on Tuesday was the lone stakes winner in the Bashford Manor field: Debt Ceiling.
Tim O’Donohue’s Debt Ceiling broke his maiden by 4 ½ lengths at Laurel in March and then won the Rollicking at Pimlico on May 18.
“When he won at Pimlico, it was a slow time, but he was very wide throughout, so it was still very impressive,” trainer John Robb said.
CLOSING WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTED BY DOWNS AFTER DARK ‘STAR-SPANGLED NIGHT’
Churchill Downs’ final Downs After Dark of the 38-day Spring Meet is Saturday at 6 p.m. (all times Eastern) and there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Not only will Churchill Downs throw Louisville’s largest pre-Fourth of July party with a “Star-Spangled Night” theme, but there’ll be a celebration of more than a half-million night racing guests since Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka debuted with a bang five years ago.
Guests are encouraged to “dress to impress” in red, white and blue as Churchill Downs is adorned with plenty of patriotic fan-fare for its All-American bash.
In a celebration of Churchill Downs surpassing 500,000 night-racing guests when 20,034 attended last week’s Downs After Dark racing and entertainment event, Churchill Downs will extend a special “thank you” to the fans with a fabulous grand prize drawing to win a Millionaires Row table, $250 betting voucher and trophy presentation to the first of two Downs After Dark events during its inaugural Homecoming Meet on Saturday, Sept. 7. Five sets of reserved 3rd floor Clubhouse box seats for six will be given away as well.
Additionally, Churchill Downs has planned a public toast after the Firecracker Handicap (Race 9 at 10:11 p.m.) with Saturday’s official event drink: the Frozen SoCo Hurricane.
The spacious 30,000-square-foot Plaza adjacent to the saddling paddock will be the heartbeat of the party. There’ll be live music by 64West (4-7:30 p.m.), one of the region’s premier rock, country and party bands, and the popular Jordan English Band (8-11:30 p.m.) of Lexington, Ky. There also will be performances by The Rumors on the Clubhouse’s fifth floor balcony, Jamie Vessels at the Gate 17 entrance and DJs in Millionaires Row and on the Jockey Club Suites fourth floor balcony. All the while, popular track bugler Steve Buttleman is sure to entertain guests with plenty of pre-race patriotic hymns after each “Call to the Post.”
The National Anthem will be performed twice Saturday. Buttleman will be accompanied by four U.S. Marines and the Presentation of Colors at 5:30 p.m. Later that evening, Misty Gonzalez of Cleveland, Ohio, the winner of Churchill Downs’ online “O Say Can YOU Sing?” promotion, will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” from The Plaza Stage between Races 4-5 at 7:50 p.m.
Additionally, there will be a special tribute to six Congressional Medal of Honor Montford Point Marines during a sure-to-be-memorable Trackside Winner’s Circle ceremony after Race 3 at 6:56 p.m.
Admission gates will open Saturday at 4 p.m. and the first of 11 live races will begin at 6 p.m. The final live race will be 11:10 p.m. and the on-track party will continue in the Plaza area until 11:30 p.m. The last call for alcohol will be post time for the final race of night.
Cover charge (general admission) to all Downs After Dark events is $10. Holders of shareholders passes or horsemen licenses and children age 12 and under (when accompanied by an adult) will be admitted free of charge. No one under the age of 18 will be admitted to the track unless they are accompanied by a parent or responsible adult.
DOWNS AFTER DARK CELEBRATES HALF A MILLION GUESTS
In celebration of 500,000 Downs After Dark guests, fans at Churchill Downs for Saturday’s “Star-Spangled Night” can enter to win a Millionaires Row table, $250 betting voucher and trophy presentation for the Sept. 7 Downs After Dark event during the inaugural Homecoming Meet (Sept. 6-29). Five sets of reserved box seats for six in the 3rd floor Clubhouse will be given away as well.
RACE FOR LEADING JOCKEY, TRAINER COULD COME DOWN TO THE WIRE
Ken and Sarah Ramsey have locked up their record 19th owners’ title at Churchill Downs with a 21-win lead over Bert, Elaine and Richard Klein with only 32 races remaining, but the races for leading jockey and leading trainer are much closer and could come right down to the wire.
Entering Friday’s 11-race card, jockey Shaun Bridgmohan holds a 48-41 lead over Rosie Napravnik in the rider standings. Corey Lanerie is third with 38.
Bridgmohan, a 34-year-old native of Jamaica, tied with Calvin Borel for the riding title at the 2006 Fall Meet. Bridgmohan is scheduled to ride eight races on Friday, 10 races Saturday and seven races Sunday.
Napravnik, whose 41 wins are more than any female rider at a single Churchill Downs meet, is trying to become the first female rider to win a riding title at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Napravnik is out of town Friday, but will return Saturday to ride 10 races and is scheduled to ride in five races Sunday.
The highest finish in the jockey standings for a female rider at Churchill Downs is fourth. Donna Barton (Brothers) finished fourth at the 1996 Spring Meet and Rosemary Homeister Jr. finished fourth at the 2010 Fall Meet.
Lanerie won the riding title at the Spring and Fall Meets at Churchill Downs in 2012. He is scheduled to ride six horses Friday, 11 horses Saturday and nine horses Sunday.
In the trainer standings, Mike Maker leads Steve Asmussen 32-30.
Maker was the leading trainer at the Churchill Downs Fall Meet in 2008 and tied for the meet lead with Asmussen at the Fall Meet in 2011. He has seven horses entered Friday, two Saturday and six Sunday.
Asmussen, ranked fourth in all-time Churchill Downs wins with 475, has won 11 local training titles, most recently the 2011 Fall Meet. Asmussen will saddle seven horses Friday, eight Saturday and four Sunday.
FAMILY FUN DAY SUNDAY
Churchill Downs will host its final Family Fun Day Presented by Kroger of the Spring Meet on the Plaza Balcony on Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kiddos age 12 and younger are invited to enjoy games, crafts and visits from Churchill Downs’ popular mascot Churchill Charlie. Sunday’s special activities include Cookies & Canvas, a patriotic craft and a snow cone truck. The first of 10 races on Sunday is 12:45 p.m. Admission gates open at 11:30 a.m.
DOWN THE STRETCH
Groupie Doll, last year’s Champion Female Sprinter, is scheduled to breeze at Churchill Downs on Saturday morning, according to trainer Buff Bradley.
Groupie Doll, a 5-year-old chestnut daughter of Bowman’s Band, has neither raced nor recorded a published workout since she was beaten by Stay Thirsty by a nose in the Cigar Mile (GI) at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.
Bradley said Groupie Doll will work three furlongs under jockey John McKee at approximately 6:20 a.m.
THIS WEEK AT CHURCHILL DOWNS
Friday, June 28
- 11 races from 2:45-7:54 p.m. (Gates 1:30 p.m.)
- Feature: $57,000 alw opt clm, 3 & up, 1 1/8 M (T)
- City’s Best Happy Hour! Drink specials ($2 Budweiser/Bud Light; $3 Stella Artois; $4 14 Hands Blackberry Sangria), food trucks & live music (The Rumors) in The Plaza from 4-7 p.m.
- Flags4Vets will place 3,000 U.S. flags in the Jockey’s Garden $ Louisville Fire Department to display giant U.S. flag near paddock.
- Annual visit to Kosair Children’s Hospital (231 East Chestnut) by Churchill Downs’ jockeys and track officials at 11 a.m.
Saturday, June 29
- 11 races from 6-11:10 p.m. (Gates: 4 p.m.)
- Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka
- Theme: Star-Spangled Night. Guests are encouraged to “dress to impress” for a flashy, fun and patriotic pre-Fourth of July celebration of red, white and blue. There’ll be a contest for best dressed female, male, couple and group.
- Feature: $150,000-added Firecracker Handicap (GII), 3 & up, 1 M (T)
- Co-Feature: $100,000-added Bashford Manor (GIII), 2yo, 6 F
- Co-Feature: $65,000-added Kelly’s Landing, 3 & up, 7 F
- Celebration of 500,000 Downs After Dark guests with prize drawings to win a Millionaires Row Table, $250 betting voucher and trophy presentation for the Sept. 7 Downs After Dark event during the inaugural Homecoming Meet (Sept. 6-29). Five sets of reserved box seats for six in the 3rd floor Clubhouse will be given away as well.
- Entertainment on The Plaza Stage includes 64 West from (4-7:30 p.m.) and the Jordan English Band from (8-11:30 p.m.). There also will be music by The Rumors on the Clubhouse’s fifth floor balcony and Jamie Vessels at the Gate 17 entrance.
- Popular text-to-win sweepstakes “Bet or No Bet,” sponsored by Thorntons, on Races 6-9.
- Winner’s circle ceremony to honor six Congressional Medal of Honor Montford Point Marines
Sunday, June 30
- 10 races from 12:45-5:29 p.m. (Gates: 11:30 a.m.)
- Closing Day of the 38-day Spring Meet
- Feature: $61,000 alw opt clm, f & m, 1 1/16 M (T)
- Family Fun Days Presented by Kroger on The Plaza Balcony from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Games, crafts, entertainment & Churchill Charlie appearance. Special activity includes Cookies & Canvas, a patriotic craft and a snow cone truck.