Sizzling equine performances topped by a Hoppertunity victory in the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare, dazzling performances by rising 2-year-olds in a pair of “Stars of Tomorrow” programs, and an early winter blast that forced the cancellation of back-to-back racing days for the first time in more than four decades were highlights of Churchill Downs Racetrack’s (“CDRT”) Fall Meet that concluded on Sunday, Nov. 30.
An unusually early winter combination of a three-inch snowfall and temperatures that plunged into single-digits combined to freeze the main track at Churchill Downs on Monday, Nov. 17 and ongoing below-average temperatures and a slow thaw prompted track officials to cancel live racing programs planned for Wednesday, Nov. 19 and Thursday, Nov. 20. There was no training over the one-mile surface from Tuesday, Nov. 18 through Thursday, Nov. 20.
The cancellation on Nov. 19 was the first winter weather-related cancellation since Nov. 13, 1986 and the back-to-back cancellations on Nov. 19-20 were the first since a frozen track forced cancellation Nov. 23-24, 1970. Track Superintendent David Lehr’s 26-person team worked around-the-clock throughout the week to get the one-mile surface back in shape for a resumption of training and racing on Friday, Nov. 21.
But the racing program during the meet that had been scheduled for 26 racing days remained strong, thanks in part to the track’s stellar program of 2-year-old racing highlighted by its pair of “Stars of Tomorrow” programs for juveniles and its attractive stakes program headed by the Clark Handicap, which was first run during the track’s inaugural meet in 1875 and, like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), has been run annually without interruption since.
The average number of horses-per-race during the 24 days of racing was 8.56, which was down 2.4% compared to the average of 8.77 horses-per-race during the 25-day Fall Meet of 2013. Purses paid during the meet totaled $8,617,940, an increase of 4.8% from the total of $8,222,779 in 25 days of racing in 2013. There were 250 races with a total of 2,140 starters during this year’s weather-shortened Fall Meet, compared with 254 races run in 2013. Average daily purses totaled $359,081 compared to $328,911 a year ago – a 9.2% increase.
Although four races from the cancelled programs were added to the remaining racing programs during the meet, the cancellations reduced the number of races offered by 20. Those cancelled races offered purses of $558,000.
“We faced challenges – expected and unexpected – during the Fall Meet, but our racetrack team responded strongly in dealing with those issues and our fans continued to support us during the remainder of the meet that, as a whole, was very satisfying,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs. “We are deeply grateful to our horsemen for their patience and support during our uncommon stretch of winter weather, and to all of the teams at our track. David Lehr’s track crews got little to no sleep for a week as they battled the frigid weather and worked tirelessly to ensure that our track was safe and fair when racing resumed. Our group sales and events teams displayed the same level of commitment in working to satisfy patrons who had scheduled visits or special events at Churchill Downs during our cancelled racing programs.
“Our Fall Meet was solid from its opening day, but the support of horsemen and fans after our winter weather issues was most gratifying. Our closing weekend racing cards were very strong and fans responded in both their attendance and at the wagering windows on our traditionally popular programs on Thanksgiving Day, the ‘Black Friday’ Clark Handicap card and our final Saturday’s 'Stars of Tomorrow’ program, one of the most impressive in the 10-year history of that concept."
The Clark Handicap, the annual highlight of the Fall Meet, did not disappoint when Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman’s Hoppertunity, a major contender for last spring’s Kentucky Derby who was knocked out of that race by injury, returned to Churchill Downs to win the $551,000 race for 3-year-olds and up by a half-length. The Clark victory was the third for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, the second for co-owner Pegram and the first for jockey Martin Garcia.
Hoppertunity led a 1-2-3 finish by 3-year-olds in which the Todd Pletcher-trained Protonico and Constitution, another Derby hopeful that had been sidelined by injury before the Run for the Roses, finished second and third, respectively.
The “Stars of Tomorrow II” program on the final Saturday of the meet produced dazzling performances by 2-year-olds that could emerge as contenders of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
Zayat Stables’ El Kabeir, Godolphin Racing’s Imperia and William S. Farish’s Eagle were separated by less than a length in a thrilling 1-2-3 finish in the $233,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII). Earlier, Mary and Gary West’s West Coast Belle held off No Fault of Mine to win the $233,400 Golden Rod (GII) for 2-year-old fillies. It was the second stakes win of the meet for West Coast Belle, who had won the $58,000-added Rags to Riches overnight stakes for trainer Wayne Catalano on the meet’s opening day.
The Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod awarded points on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” and “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points system to the respective top four finishes in those races. The points will determine the horses that participate in next year’s Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs and El Kabeir and West Coast Belle earned 10 points each for their respective races.
Other eye-catching “Stars of Tomorrow II” performances were turned in by unbeaten Dortmund, who traveled from California for three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert to take a one-mile allowance race by 7 ¾ lengths, and Taylor S, a 2-year-old filly whose 6 ¼-length win in a six-furlong allowance race was one of three winners on the day for trainer Dale Romans.
G. Watts Humphrey’s homebred Frivolous upset heavily-favored Don’t Tell Sophia in a 19-1 upset in the 99th running of the $222,600 Falls City Handicap (GII) for fillies and mares on Thanksgiving Day. Trainer Vicki Oliver, the owner/breeder’s daughter, collected her first Churchill Downs stakes victory in the race and Frivolous was ridden by 54-year-old jockey Jon Court, who scored his first stakes win since he suffered a serious injury to his right hand in a riding mishap in the spring.
Other notable stakes wins during the meet included victories by Sparkling Review in the $237,800 Mrs. Revere (GII) for 3-year-old fillies on the grass; Molly Morgan, who took the $237,210 Chilukki (GII) for her second Grade II stakes win of the year for owner Bill Cubbedge and trainer Romans; the 3-year-old Heart to Heart, who scored his second stakes win of the year on the Churchill Downs grass in the $115,300 Commonwealth Turf (GIII); the 5-year-old Villandry, who took the $114,000 River City Handicap (GIII) for trainer Charlie LoPresti; Strike Charmer, who scored the first stakes win of her career when she took the $119,700 Cardinal Handicap (GIII) and Conquest Tsunami, who won the $55,211 Street Sense on the opening day ‘Stars of Tomorrow I’ racing program.
Jockeys Julien Leparoux and Robby Albarado achieved career milestones during the Fall Meet. The 31-year-old Leparoux collected his 2,000th career win in a one-length victory aboard In My Time in an Oct. 29 allowance race. Albarado, 41, celebrated his 1,000th career victory at Churchill Downs when he guided Red Masserati to victory in a Nov. 13 claiming race.
Streaking Corey Lanerie rode 36 winners during the Fall Meet’s 24 days to collect his fifth-consecutive “Leading Rider” title at a Churchill Downs racing meet. It was the seventh title in the last eight Churchill Downs meets for Lanerie, who now ranks 11th in all-time victories by a jockey at the track. Shaun Bridgmohan finished second (25 wins) and Leparoux (24) was third.
Louisville native Dale Romans saddled 14 winners to earn his 12th title of “Leading Trainer” at his hometown track. Romans edged Wayne Catalano by one in a race that came down to the meet’s final day.
There was a tie for leading owner at 12 wins apiece between all-time Churchill Downs win leaders Ken and Sarah Ramsey and Gary and Mary West. The title for the Ramseys was their record-extending 23rd overall and 12th Fall Meet crown. The tie provided the Wests with their first “Leading Owner” title at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
It was a busy meet at the claiming box, with 139 horses claimed during the 24 days for a total of $2,732,000, which generated $163,920 in sales tax revenue for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.