Four accomplished graded stakes winners – Departing, Frac Daddy, Medal Count and Skyring – look to relive their past glory Saturday night at Churchill Downs as headliners in a competitive 26th renewal of the $200,000 Firecracker (Grade II) on closing night of the Louisville racetrack’s 38-day Spring Meet.
The one-mile Firecracker on the Matt Winn Turf Course is one of four stakes events on a deep 11-race nighttime card billed as “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka.” Admission gates open Saturday at 5 p.m. (all times Eastern), the first race is 6 p.m. and the “Downs After Dark” theme is “Boots, Brew & BBQ” in which guests are encourage to break out their best cowboy and cowgirl duds to enjoy draft beer, specialty cocktails, BBQ food trucks, mechanical bull rides, “Bet or No Bet Presented by Thorntons” and live music by Nashville artist Justin Adams.
The Firecracker goes as Race 8 at approximately 9:39 p.m.
Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Frac Daddy (19-5-7-0—$699,236) and Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Departing (16-7-2-3—$1,600,279) finished second and third, respectively, to 2 ½-length winner The Pizza Man in the $57,672 Opening Verse overnight stakes, Churchill Downs’ traditional Firecracker prep over 1 1/16 miles on turf on May 30. The Pizza Man wasn’t under Firecracker consideration and instead is expected to target Arlington’s $100,000 Stars and Stripes (GIII) over 1 ½ miles on turf on July 11.
The Kenny McPeek-trained Frac Daddy, the well-traveled 5-year-old winner of last summer’s $186,614 Eclipse (GII) at Woodbine, landed the rail for Saturday’s Firecracker – the same post in which he led a field of eight in the Opening Verse only to be caught late by a rail-skimming The Pizza Man.
Departing, the 2013 winner of the Illinois Derby (GIII), West Virginia Derby (GII) and Super Derby (GII) for trainer Al Stall Jr., finished a head back of Frac Daddy that day in his turf debut. It also was the 5-year-old gelding’s first race in 183 and regular rider Robby Albarado – a two-time Firecracker winner aboard Joe Who-BRZ (1999) and Silver Max (2014) – warned after the Opening Verse: “Look for a big effort from him next time.”
But Departing won’t have Albarado in the saddle. Prior to Wednesday’s entries, it was suggested by Stall that Departing may shorten up in distance and return to dirt for Saturday night’s $70,000-added Kelly’s Landing overnight stakes at seven furlongs on the Firecracker undercard. Instead, an audible to try grass again was called Wednesday morning and Miguel Mena will take over the reins as Albarado pilots Michael Hui’s recent allowance/optional claiming winner Hammers Terror (31-9-2-6—$454,384) for Spring Meet leading trainer Mike Maker.
Stall also has Spendthrift Farm LLC’s 4-year-old Medal Count (13-3-2-1—$478,671) for the Firecracker. The Kentucky-bred son of Dynaformer, who won the Transylvania (GIII) and finished third in the Belmont Stakes (GI) at age 3 while under the care of Dale Romans, returned from a 266-day rest to finish last of five in a 1 1/16-mile off-the-turf allowance/optional claimer over a “wet fast” surface in his first start for Stall on June 20. He wheels back in one week for the Firecracker.
Another horse seeking to return to his best form is Calumet Farm’s Skyring (34-5-4-2—$671,902). The D. Wayne Lukas-trainee won the 2013 Dixie (GII) at Pimlico at 24-1 and this year’s Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Handicap (GII) at Fair Grounds at 7-1 in gate-to-wire fashion. He finished seventh in an attempt to win the Dixie on the Preakness Stakes undercard for a second time on May 16.
Calumet Farm, now run by Brad Kelley, is Churchill Downs’ all-time stakes-winning owner with 33, one more than Claiborne Farm’s 32.
In addition to Hammers Terror, Brad Ray’s Knights Nation (23-6-6-3--$226,673), trained by Dallas Stewart, and Theiline P. Scheumann’s Slip By (8-3-0-1—$88,850), a Maryland invader conditioned by Michael Matz, enter the Firecracker off recent wins.
Trainer Mark Casse’s lightly-raced 4-year-old Sky Flight (5-3-0-1—$120,445) hasn’t raced since a third-place finish behind Lochte and Old Time Hockey in the $150,000 Tampa Bay (GIII) on Jan. 24. However, the Sky Mesa colt was supplemented to the race for $6,000 by owner John C. Oxley.
Nancy Vanier and Mike Schmitt’s R. Great Adventure (17-4-3-3—$135,048), fourth in the Opening Verse for trainer Brian Williamson, rounds out the field.
The Firecracker lineup from the rail out (with jockeys): Frac Daddy (Corey Lanerie); Sky Flight (Julien Leparoux); Skip By (Rafael Hernandez); R. Great Adventure (Jamie Theriot); Hammers Terror (Albarado); Knights Nation (Brian Hernandez Jr.); Departing (Mena); Medal Count (James Graham); and Skyring (Joe Rocco Jr.).
General admission for Saturday night’s Spring Meet finale under the lights is $10. Reserved seats can be purchased in advance online at www.ChurchillDowns.com.