The 135th Spring Meet at Churchill Downs came to a close Sunday afternoon with the lasting images of a longshot winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I), the coronation of racing royalty in the Kentucky Oaks (GI) and a dazzling start for racing under the stars with the debut of “Downs After Dark” night racing beneath the Twin Spires.
It was a meet in which the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, became household names both inside and out of the racing world, and nights under the lights at Churchill Downs became the place both to be and be seen.
Around midnight on April 21, trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr. – who never had started a Thoroughbred in a Grade I race – much less the biggest race of them all – pulled into Churchill Downs’ Gate 5 hauling behind his Ford F-450 Lariat a trailer containing a small gelding named Mine That Bird. Expectations for Mine That Bird in the Derby were not high after a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Park Derby.
In the late afternoon of May 2, things changed in the blink of an eye in front of a crowd of 153,563, the seventh-largest crowd in Kentucky Derby history.
Ridden by Calvin Borel, who had only picked up the mount the week before, Mime That Bird trailed 18 horses after three-quarters of a mile. Riding next to the rail as he had done in the 2007 Kentucky Derby with Street Sense, Borel and Mine That Bird began passing horses in a blur.
At the top of the stretch, Mine That Bird moved around Atomic Rain and darted back to the rail. At the eighth pole, Mine That Bird squeezed through a narrow opening between the rail and Join in the Dance and drew off a 6 ¾-length victory over Pioneerof the Nile. Mine That Bird covered the 1 ¼ miles in 2:02.66 over a track rated as “sloppy.”
Sent off as the third-longest price in the field of 19, Mine That Bird paid $103.20 to win, the second-largest payoff in Kentucky Derby history. The 6 ¾-length margin of victory was the largest in the Derby since 1946 when Assault won by eight lengths.
Despite the near-historic victory margin posted by Mine that Bird, it paled in comparison to what had transpired in the Kentucky Oaks the day before.
L and M Partners’ (Dolphus Morrison and Michael Lauffer) Rachel Alexandra dazzled a crowd of 104,867 by winning the 135th running of the Kentucky Oaks by 20 ¼ lengths. Borel sat motionless on the filly’s back as she effortlessly expanded her advantage in completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.87 over a fast track.
Borel became the first jockey since 1993 and seventh in history to sweep the Oaks and the Derby in the same year.
The 135th running of the Kentucky Oaks marked the first year of a fundraising partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure©, the world’s largest breast cancer fundraising and outreach organization. The crowd was encouraged to “Think Pink” and wear Komen’s signature color as 104,867 witnessed the race, which was televised for the first time on the cable network Bravo. The 2009 Kentucky Oaks marked the 11th time in 12 years that attendance had topped the 100,000 mark.
As part of that fundraising partnership, Churchill Downs presented Susan G. Komen for the Cure with a donation of $100,000 for breast cancer research, and another $30,000 was presented to “Horses and Hope,” a breast cancer outreach initiative launched by Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear that is focused on providing breast cancer education and screening to workers in Kentucky’s horse industry.
History of another kind was made during the Spring Meet on Friday, June 19, when Churchill Downs conducted its first night racing program. The 11-race program began with a first post of 6 p.m. (EDT) and attracted a crowd of 28,011. Two other “Downs After Dark” programs were offered with the June 26 card drawing 27,623 to Churchill Downs and the Thursday, July 2 program drawing 34,481 for a three-night total of 89,115 under the temporary lights at the historic home of the Kentucky Derby.
In addition to Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, other Grade I winners at the meet were Augustin Stable’s Informed Decision in the Humana Distaff, Midnight Cry Stable’s Einstein (BRZ) in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and West Point Thoroughbreds’ Macho Again in the Stephen Foster.
Julien Leparoux, who won his third Spring Meet riding title with 62 victories, was aboard Informed Decision and Einstein and Robby Albarado won his third consecutive Stephen Foster when he rallied Macho Again from last to deny Einstein’s bid to become the first horse to win three consecutive Grade I races on different surfaces (dirt, turf and synthetic).
Leparoux edged Borel by a single victory as the latter rode three winners on the meet’s final day but fell just short of catching the absent Leparoux. It marked the second time in three years that Leparoux edged Borel by a single win for the Spring Meet title.
Borel and Albarado reached riding milestones during the meet.
On May 14, Borel became the fourth rider to reach 900 victories at Churchill Downs with his win aboard War Eagle Lady. On June 12, Borel got Churchill Downs victory No. 926 aboard Smoke Trail to move him past Don Brumfield into second place all time behind Pat Day’s record 2,482.
Albarado became the sixth rider to reach 800 victories at Churchill Downs when he won aboard La Mousse (ARG) on April 30. A month later, his victory aboard Keertana was the 4,000th of his career making him the 57th North American-based rider to reach that plateau.
Steve Asmussen won his sixth leading trainer title with 29 victories. Asmussen’s title was his third in the spring to go with 2004 and 2007. He also won fall titles in 2001, 2004 and 2007. Mike Maker, the leading trainer of the 2008 Fall Meet finished second with 18 wins, one more than Greg Foley and two more than 2008 Spring Meet training champion Tom Amoss.
Four trainers achieved their 300th career victories at Churchill Downs to boost the number to 12 at that plateau in track history.
McGlamery Road gave Tom Amoss his 300th on May 14, Action Seeker accounted for No. 300 for Lynn Whiting on May 29, Citizen John on June 12 was Dave Vance’s 300th winner and Izzy Ali’s triumph on June 25 was No. 300 for Greg Foley.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey won their record 15th leading owner title and fourth in a row as their stable posted 18 victories. The Ramseys have won eight spring titles and seven in the fall.
The Churchill Downs Fall Meet begins Sunday, Nov. 1 and runs through Saturday, Nov. 28.