The second-consecutive September Meet at Churchill Downs Racetrack (“CDRT”) concluded its 12-date run on Sunday, September 28 with encouraging results and a string of strong performances by the equine and human stars who competed during the brief racing session.
Performances on the track include victories and strong efforts by 2-year-olds whose connections are dreaming of next spring’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), along with veteran stars taking aim at big races in the fall and, for some, possible trips to California for the Breeders’ Cup Championships. All of the meet’s races involving contests for leading jockey, trainer and owner had dramatic finishes and were not decided until the final races on Sunday’s closing day.
The second year of a new racing product at the home of the Kentucky Derby offered Kentucky horsemen both attractive racing options for their horses on dirt and turf and a daily purse structure that was comparable to the 2013 debut of the track’s September Meet. The meet, which was only the second Churchill Downs racing meet since 1890 to be conducted entirely in the month of September, benefitted from ideal early autumn weather. The main track was rated “fast” on each of the meet’s 12 racing days, and the Matt Winn Turf Course was rated “firm” for all but one of those racing sessions.
Churchill Downs paid total purses of $3,864,487during September’s 12 racing dates for daily average purses of $322,041. A total of 940 horses competed in the meet’s 122 races, and the average field for a race during the meet consisted of 7.7 horses. The average number of horses per race in 2013, also through 122 races, was 8.07.
“We have a pair of September meets behind us and Churchill Downs remains optimistic that this new racing and entertainment product can be successful,” Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said. “We faced many of the same challenges during this meet that impacted our Spring Meet, including our ongoing concerns about field sizes. Unfortunately, the starters per race was down this year, which is a result of the declining foal crops and increased competition for available horses from other tracks in our region and beyond.
“The positive news is that the Louisville market is becoming more aware of our September Meet and the possibilities it holds for Kentucky horsemen during a beautiful time of year. We look forward to working with the racing commission and the horsemen to address the issue of field sizes so that we can continue to provide this promising product.”
One of the strengths of Churchill Downs’ racing in the latter half of any year is the division of talented and well-bred 2-year-olds stabled at the track, and the opening weekend of the meet cast the spotlight on a pair of juveniles that scored important stakes victories on their respective roads to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), and the major races for 2-year-old Thoroughbreds in the Breeders’ Cup Championships at Santa Anita on Saturday, Nov. 1.
Trainer Steve Asmussen saddled the top two finishers in the $115,500 Iroquois (GIII) when Jerry Durant’s Lucky Player edged stablemate Bold Conquest in the 33rd running of the 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-olds, one of four stakes events run on Saturday, Sept. 6. The victory under Ricardo Santana Jr. made the son of Lookin At Lucky an early leader in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” point standings that will determine the field for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) on May 2, 2015. Along with the 10 points collected for his victory in the opening race in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” standings, Lucky Player’s win also earned an automatic spot in the starting gate for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) at Santa Anita on Nov. 1. For the second consecutive year, the Iroquois was the first race in the “Breeders’ Cup Win & You’re In Juvenile Division.”
GSN Racing’s Cristina’s Journey provided trainer Dale Romans his third career victory in the $231,000 Pocahontas (GII) for 2-year-old fillies on the Sept. 6 program, and her front-running triumph offered added-value to the daughter of Any Given Saturday similar to that earned by Lucky Player in the Iroquois. The Pocahontas was the lead-off event of the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points system that will determine the participants in next spring’s 141st running of the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks and also the first stop on the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In Juvenile Fillies Division.” The win under Miguel Mena gave Cristina’s Journey 10 points, an early lead on the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” and a guaranteed spot in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI).
Other outstanding September Meet performance were delivered on the meet’s final weekend when Cigar Street held off the late charge of favored Departing to win the second running of the $135,500 Homecoming Classic by 2 ¾-lengths and Canada-based Heart to Heart led from start to finish in the 39th running of the $110,000 Jefferson Cup (GIII) for 3-year-olds at one-mile on turf.
Cigar Street, a 5-year-old son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense owned by Jake Ballis and National Basketball Association star Rashard Lewis, improved his career record to 5-1-0 in only eight races. The winner could be a candidate for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI), but his owners said that decision would be up to their Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. The trainer is the all-time leader in victories and stakes wins at Churchill Downs, and the win by Cigar Street was Mott’s 680th beneath the track’s Twin Spires and his 89th stakes triumph.
Heart to Heart, an Ontario-bred son of English Channel owned by Terry Hamilton, led from the start under Julien Leparoux and rolled to a four-length win in the Jefferson Cup. The Jefferson Cup victory was his second consecutive stakes win and the fifth victory overall for the improving young turf star trained by Bryan Lynch.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Thank You Marylou, who finished fifth to Untapable in this year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks, had a happy return to Churchill Downs when she rolled to a 6 ½-length victory in the 39th running of the $112,000 Dogwood (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs. The daughter of Birdstone is trained by Mike Maker and was ridden by Miguel Mena.
Other strong stakes performances during the September Meet were turned in by Joseph Sutton’s Bradester, who led from the start under jockey Corey Lanerie to win the $107,300 Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) for trainer Eddie Kenneally, and the 6-year-old mare Don’t Tell Sophia, who returned from a six-month layoff to score an emphatic 2 ¼-length victory for trainer Phil Simms and jockey Joe Rocco Jr. in the 31st running $108,200 Locust Grove. The latter, co-owned by Simms and Jerry Namy, defeated Grade I winner On Fire Baby and Grade II winner Molly Malone in her sixth stakes victory.
Asmussen and owner Gillian Campbell collected their second consecutive win in the $111,500 Open Mind when jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. guided Aireofdistinction to victory in the sixth running of that six-furlong race for fillies and mares ages 3 & up.
The results of the leading jockey, trainer and owner races were not settled until late in Sunday’s 10-race closing day program and, in one case, the final yards of the meet’s last race.
Jockey Corey Lanerie, the defending September Meet win leader, and Ricardo Santana Jr. were tied at 13 wins heading into the meet’s 122th and final race. Though both men had a mount, they ended up sharing the title when Paden and jockey Joe Johnson won the meet’s finale. Lanerie led at the head of the stretch aboard Geometry, but finished fourth. Santana and Catchifyoucan rallied late for third. The shared title was Lanerie’s sixth “leading rider” title at Churchill Downs, while Santana earned his first.
"It’s exciting, competitive and frustrating, because you don’t want to get beat, especially when it got to this point,” Lanerie said after the meet’s last race. “I guess if you’ve never been there it’s different but now it’s almost like people expect me to be there in the running at the end. In the grand scheme of things you like to think it doesn’t matter as long as you’re healthy and you’re winning races, but it really does. But it’s a goal and now that I’ve won so many I just want to see how many more I can win and how long I can keep going.”
“Last year that was my dream to win something like this at Churchill Downs,” Santana said. “I want to say thank God first and then thank all the trainers for giving me a chance, because it’s not easy. I would have liked to get one more in that last one, but the best horse won the race. I’m just happy to be here and happy to get the chance to ride good horses.”
Brian Hernandez Jr. finished one win back of the top pair.
The battle for leading trainer ended in a tie as Steve Asmussen and Wayne Catalano each saddled seven winners. Asmussen extended his record total of Churchill Downs training crowns to 15, but Catalano’s crown was his first. Catalano’s title was special because it was his first at the Louisville track, but also because it was another indication that he has rebounded from a significant health scare earlier in the year resulted in a hospital stay of 22 days.
“I just want to thank the folks here at Churchill Downs and also thank my wife for standing by my side in my time of poor health,” Catalano said. “If you don’t have your health, you don’t really have anything so we’re lucky to be standing here. Today we went in there with good horses and couldn’t get it done outright. So it’s a little tough, but we’ve been through a lot of those and again we’re just happy to be here.”
Dale Romans and Eddie Kenneally finished in a tie for third in the trainers race, one win back of the top pair.
And Ken and Sarah Ramsey, the Nicholasville, Ky. couple who have won more races than any owner in the 140-year history of Churchill Downs, sent seven horses into the winner’s circle during in September for their record-extending 22nd training crown at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
The Ramseys edged Gary and Mary West – who started a meet-high 20 horses – and Maggi Moss, each of whom finished with six victories.
“All I have to say is ‘Wow’,” Ken Ramsey said. “We’ve had a great time here at Churchill Downs over the years; we’ve had our picture taken in this winner’s circle almost 400 times, but we’ve still got one thing on our bucket list and that’s to get our picture made on the inside of that (infield) fence in the (Kentucky) Derby.”
With their seven winners in the September Meet, the Ramseys have 398 career wins at Churchill Downs.
A total of 73 horses were claimed during the September Meet and the claims totaled $1,216,500. The claims resulted in sales tax revenue of $72,990 to the Kentucky State Treasury.
Racing at Churchill Downs will resume following a brief break with its 25-date Fall Meet, which will run from Oct. 26-Nov. 30. Racing will be conducted on a Wednesday-Sunday schedule to conclude the second straight year – but only the second overall – during which Churchill Downs has hosted a trio of racing meets in a calendar year.