The curtain dropped on the Churchill Downs Fall Meet on Sunday, Nov. 28 with a farewell salute to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, who is heading home to New Mexico after retiring from his career on the track. Fittingly, the meet’s last race was run in the glow of the historic track’s new permanent lights after a 21-day meet highlighted by the return of the Breeders’ Cup and its unforgettable under-the-lights Classic showdown between Blame and Zenyatta, a host of spectacular performances by equine and human athletes and the introduction of “Downs After Dark” night racing for the first time during a Fall Meet at the legendary home of the Kentucky Derby.
Co-owners Dr. Leonard Blach and Mark Allen were joined by trainer Chip Woolley and exercise rider Charlie Figueroa, who traveled from New Mexico for a ceremony in the regular winner’s circle following Sunday’s seventh race in which fans provided warm applause and affection for Mine That Bird, the tiny gelding who shocked the sports world when he won Derby 135 under jockey Calvin Borel at odds of 50-1 – the second-biggest upset in the history of America’s greatest race. Churchill Downs presented Mine That Bird with a special blanket bearing the official event logo of his Kentucky Derby, and track President Kevin Flanery presented the Derby winner a basket filled with apples, peppermints and equine treats and toys for his van ride back to New Mexico and a post-racetrack life in retirement at Allen’s Double Eagle Ranch.
The visit by the Breeders’ Cup World Championships was the record seventh to Churchill Downs, but its first as a two-day affair on Nov. 5 and 6. The result, in keeping with Breeders’ Cup tradition at Churchill Downs, resulted in record figures for both attendance and wagering for the Championships. The attendance over the two days was 114,353 – an increase of 18.5% over the previous year’s attendance at Santa Anita. The Championship Friday program, which included the first Breeders’ Cup races run under lights, attracted a crowd of 41,614 – an increase of nearly 11 percent over 2009. Saturday’s 11-race card attracted 72,739 fans. Two-day common-pool wagering on the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs totaled $163,619,784, an increase of 13% over the $144,599,205 wagered in 2009.
Along with the race for the ages in the Classic in which Blame edged previously unbeaten Zenyatta, the Breeders’ Cup also featured brilliant performance by French superstar Goldikova (IRE), who won her third consecutive running of the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI), and a dominant victory in the Juvenile (GI) by Uncle Mo, who became the likely favorite for Kentucky Derby 137 with that win, and unbeaten Awesome Feather, who became an early contender for the 2011 Kentucky Oaks (GI) with her emphatic victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI).
But the heroics in the Breeders’ Cup had to share the Fall Meet spotlight with a memorable running of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) on Friday, Nov. 26 in which Morton Fink’s favored Successful Dan finished first by a head, but was disqualified to third as stewards awarded the win to the Virginia Tarra Trust’s Giant Oak. The roughly run 136th renewal of the Clark, a race that is as old as the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, resulted in three-day suspensions for jockeys Julien Leparoux, who rode Successful Dan, and Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard Demarcation, who was disqualified from fourth to 11th because of another incident in the race. Third-place finisher Redding Colliery was elevated to the runner-up spot.
Other dazzling equine performances included dominant performances by 2-year-old fillies. John C. Oxley’s unbeaten Dancinginherdreams, trained by Kentucky Derby and Oaks winner John Ward Jr., overcame traffic problems to win the $150,000-added Pocahontas (GII) by 5 ¼ lengths on the meet’s opening day on Oct. 31, and the Ken McPeek-trained Kathmanblu, a troubled third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (GII), won the $150,000-added Golden Rod (GII) by a resounding 8 ½ lengths. Her margin of victory was the largest since Silverbulletday capped a season that earned her an Eclipse Award as 2-year-old filly champion with a 10-length Golden Rod romp in 1998.
Tom Walters’ Santiva emerged as an early contender for the 2011 Kentucky Derby with a gritty victory in the $150,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club as the Eddie Kenneally trainee turned back challenges from Iroquois (GIII) winner Astrology and Major Gain. The Kentucky Jockey Club was co-featured with the Golden Rod on the “Stars of Tomorrow II” racing program on Saturday, Nov. 27. That day also featured an impressive victory by WinStar Farm’s Brethren, a half-brother WinStar’s 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, in a one-mile allowance race. Super Saver used a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club on the “Stars of Tomorrow II” session a year earlier as a springboard to his success at Churchill Downs in this spring’s “Run for the Roses.”
The Fall Meet’s human races saw familiar faces atop the standings as the meet wound to a close on Sunday.
Julien Leparoux won his fourth consecutive Fall Meet riding title, completing the 21-day season with 28 victories. It marked the seventh leading rider title for Leparoux, who now has 450 victories at Churchill Downs, 12th best all time.
Marcelino Pedroza Jr., a 17-year-old native of Panama City, Panama, was the meet’s leading apprentice with nine victories.
Steve Asmussen won his fourth consecutive leading trainer title. Asmussen, fifth all time in victories at Churchill Downs with 394, saddled 16 winners during the meet. It was Asmussen’s fifth Fall Meet title and ninth overall.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey notched their fourth consecutive Fall Meet leading owner title by sending out six winners. The Ramseys, who topped the 300-victory mark all time during the meet, have won 17 leading owner titles (nine Fall, eight Spring) with 16 of them being outright crowns.
Chicago-based trainer Chris Block enjoyed a notable achievement during the meet as he won three stakes races – including a sweep of the Thanksgiving Weekend Clark Handicap with Giant Oak and Falls City Handicap with the 3-year-old filly Dundalk Dust – and each winner was bred in Illinois. Block also saddled Askbut I Won’ttell to win the Cardinal Handicap (GIII).
Racing throughout the 21-day session was marked by strong competitive fields, with overflow entries for many of the always popular Fall Meet races for 2-year-olds. Average field size for the meet’s races stood at 9.91 horses-per-race, which was flat when compared with the average from the 2009 Fall Meet.
Night racing at Churchill Downs, a resounding success during the Spring Meet in each of the past two years, made its debut on a chilly Friday evening on Nov. 19 before 15,583 fans – many of whom were clad in outfits in keeping with the evening’s “Mad About Plaid” theme. Continuing the pattern displayed by sessions of racing under the lights in the spring, attendance at the first Fall Meet “Downs After Dark” racing session reflected a 191 percent increase compared to the 5,363 fans who had been on hand for an afternoon program on the same day a year earlier.
"Our fans had many reasons to smile during our brief 21-day Fall Meet, thanks to memorable performances on the track and memorable moments during the return of Breeders’ Cup, our first look at ‘Downs After Dark’ night racing in the fall and longstanding traditions like our Thanksgiving Day celebration,” said Flanery. “We were generally pleased with our racing product and solid field sizes during this compact 21-day meet, but we remain very concerned about the prospects for Churchill Downs and Kentucky racing in 2011 and beyond. We’re facing growing pressure from race purses fed by slot machine revenues at tracks in neighboring states, especially Indiana. Pennsylvania’s success with slots-fed purses continues to lure Kentucky horses and horsemen, and the anticipated introduction of slot revenues to purses at New York tracks sometime in 2011 looms as a major competitive threat. So, while we’re pleased that horsemen found attractive races at Churchill Downs during this Fall Meet and that our purses could be increased briefly because of solid business levels, our concerns for the future of our track and Kentucky racing are in no way diminished because of those successes. The coming year could be one of the most challenging ever for Churchill Downs and Kentucky racing.”
Racing returns to Churchill Downs on Saturday, April 30, 2011, the opening day of the Spring Meet and the week leading up to the 137th of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. The April 30 session, highlighted by the $200,000-added The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (GIII) – the final prep race for the Kentucky Derby – will be the first conducted under the lights as a “Downs After Dark” event.