(Photo: Herington Rocket won a $150,000 maiden race at Kentucky Downs under meet-leader Tyler Gaffalione. Grace Clark photo)
Tyler Gaffalione won’t be spending much time on the ground in the upcoming days. He’ll be flying back and forth between the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs and the remaining days at Saratoga when Kentucky Downs doesn’t race.
When he’s not at the airport or in flight, Gaffalione will mostly be on horseback. He is named to ride 31 of Kentucky Downs’ 33 races spread over Thursday’s opening-day card, Saturday and Sunday. He will ride at Saratoga on Wednesday, Friday and Labor Day, before returning to Kentucky for the remainder of this meet as well as Churchill Downs and Keeneland.
And that’s how Gaffalione likes it. Since winning three races in his first Kentucky Downs meet in 2017 to finish fifth, Gaffalione has never been worse than third in the standings — including the 2020 title with 11 wins and last year’s crown with nine. But he also had a record 17 second-place finishes, including in six stakes.
“I love to ride there,” said Gaffalione, who for several years has made Kentucky his home. “It’s one of my favorite courses to ride. I’ve always been a big fan of Kentucky Downs. But now, it’s on the backend of Saratoga when we’re coming back home. It’s always something to look forward to, coming to Kentucky Downs and getting back home after a long summer.
“It’s special to me because we always bring my family out. My sister lives in Tennessee. She has two kids. My father comes to the races. My wife. It’s just great for the family. They can get close to the action. It’s fun. As much as we love Saratoga and love competing there, Kentucky is our home. Most of our business is there. It’s kind of getting back into the swing of things, getting ready for Churchill and Keeneland.”
The FanDuel meet begins Thursday, with the featured attraction being the $500,000 FanDuel Tapit Stakes. Kentucky Downs runs this Thursday, Saturday Sunday and Sept. 7, 9, 10 and 13 over the distinctive kidney-shaped and undulating course. First post is 12:30 p.m. Central every day except for 11:30 a.m. CT on Saturday Sept. 9. There is free general admission in front of the Mint Gaming Hall and the top of the stretch with free tailgating into the far turn. Reserved seating can also be purchased in the FanDuel VIP Chalet and the open-air Finish Line Pavilion.
Gaffalione is among the beneficiaries of Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher entering more horses at Kentucky Downs than ever before. Gaffalione will ride 8-5 favorite Annapolis in Saturday’s $2 million Mint Millions and 4-1 third choice Major Dude in the $500,000 Gun Runner for Pletcher.
“This will be my first time on him,” Gaffalione said of Annapolis, who last year as a 3-year-old beat older horses in the $1 million, Grade 1 Coolmore Turf Mile at Keeneland and most recently was a close second in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Fourstardave. “I’m very familiar with him, competing against him in some of his previous races. He’s a very talented colt, and I’m very excited to ride him.”
With Gaffalione aboard for the first time, Major Dude finished a close fourth in Colonial Downs’ Grade 2 Secretariat after setting the pace.
“I had to use him a little bit more than I would have liked to going into the first turn,” Gaffalione said. “We were drawn outside that day and I thought we’d be able to get to the spot we wanted a little bit easier. There was a horse in the middle, and I went on and used my horse a little to get position in the 2 path. Might have done too much too early that day. Coming to the top of the stretch, I had a little more left. But when I pushed the button, he kind of emptied out on me. He’s a very talented colt. He’s shown that, competing with the top 3-year-olds this year. He’s very consistent. I think Kentucky Downs is a good spot for him. There’s plenty of room out there. We can take our time and just let him get underneath himself.”
The jockey also will ride 7-2 favorite Safeen in Sunday’s $1 million Dueling Grounds Oaks for trainer Eddie Kenneally and is well-mounted in Saturday’s $1 million Big Ass Fans Music City Stakes on the Brendan Walsh-trained Secret Money.
Those are among the 11 races with the offered purse at least $1 million. The $2 million Mint Millions, which includes $1 million for Kentucky-breds from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, shapes up as the second richest race in Kentucky behind only the Kentucky Derby. The meet’s second-richest is the $1.7 million, Grade 2 FanDuel Kentucky Turf Cup at 1 1/2 miles on Sept. 9.
“It’s incredible,” Gaffalione said. “You don’t really appreciate it until you go there. It’s the scenery, the people. It’s kind of like a backyard event but you race for this incredible amount of money and all these good horses show up every year. You get a little bit of international flair. It’s just a good time all around.”
‘Put up the money, they will come,’ says owner at KD for 1st time
Wednesday morning was a postcard kind of day in Western Kentucky.
Temperatures hovered the mid to upper 60s and were rising; the sky a canopy of blue. If the 300 acres of grass that surround Kentucky Downs were any greener, you’d swear you had been transported to Ireland.
The day was a promise of what lies ahead. The wildly popular FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs seven-day engagement, which starts Thursday, will have $22.82 million in purses up for grabs, a track record for the 12th straight year.
Horses that will run for those big paydays are starting to trickle into the barn area. So, too are trainers and owners who can’t wait for 12:30 p.m. Central on Thursday.
Trainer Joe Sharp, who calls Kentucky home, just got back from a summer in Saratoga and he was just itching to get things rolling at the Downs.
He recalled a conversation he had with his wife, former standout Rosie Napravnik – who once was the leading rider at Kentucky Downs – on Tuesday night.
“I said, ‘man, I can’t wait to go to sleep, so I can wake up and go to Kentucky Downs,” Sharp said outside his Kentucky Downs barn Wednesday morning.
Sharp had just completed a morning of training and, like everyone else, is looking forward to having success on the turf.
As Sharp was going through his paces on the late summer morning, one of his owners, James Atkins, was taking the whole scene in.
This was the first time that Atkins, who hails from a Virginia town called Culpeper, had ever stepped on the Kentucky Downs grounds. And he liked what he saw.
Atkins and his partner, Erich Brehm. will be watching Thursday’s second race with interest as their 2-year-old filly Hidden Class runs in an allowance race worth a whopping $250,000. Only at Kentucky Downs.
Hidden Class is 7-2 on the morning line.
“If you build it, they will come,” Atkins, who owns a horse racing themed restaurant, Pepper’s Grill, back home. “If they put up the money, they will come. I said to Joe (Sharp), ‘I don’t know how this race is going to turn out, but, for him to pick this spot, where she is 7-2 running for a quarter of a million dollars … did I ever see that? Heck no!”
Hidden Class began her career with a second place finish in a maiden special weight at Saratoga at 51/2 furlongs on the grass.
Sharp has some history with Kentucky Downs. He won with the first horse he ever saddled – Holiday Drama – on Sept. 10,2014. His future wife was the jockey. The race was held right here, at Kentucky Downs.
“People feel good when they are here,” Sharp said. “When you see your crew and your horses just light up like that, the energy is second to none. When you are at Kentucky Downs, you can decompress coming off a very high pressure paced summer at Saratoga. It’s more laid back and, hey, you can wear shorts in the paddock for a million dollar race.”
Joseph: “We are running everything we have.”
As he stood outside his barn on the backstretch at Saratoga Race Course last week, trainer Saffie Joseph was counting down the days to Kentucky Downs.
A year ago, Joseph finished third in the training standings with five wins – behind Mike Maker (12 wins) and Wesley Ward (six). He was 11th in earnings with $438,632.
“I love going there,” Joseph said.
Twenty-one horses from his barn started at the Kentucky Downs meet last year. He could not say how many would enter the starting gate during this seven-day meet, but he vows there will be plenty.
“We are running everything,” said Joseph, who first came to KentuckyDowns three years ago. “Every turf horse we have. I would like to run at least 30 at this meet. We’ll see.”
Over the first three days of the meet, which starts Thursday, Joseph has nine horses entered and two others on the also eligible list. On Sunday, he plans on running, among others, 5-year-old gelding Saratoga Flash in a $500,000 handicap race. Saratoga Flash is owned by Daily Double Racing, LLC. The son of Laoban has won four of 15 career starts on the grass.
He said he plans on running Transient, a 5-year-old mare owned by Bob Edwards’ e Five Racing Thoroughbreds, in the $1 million, Grade 3 Aristocrat Ladies Marathon at 1 5/16 miles on Saturday, Sept. 9.
Bred in Great Britain, Transient is coming off a two-length win in the Powder Break Stakes at Gulfstream on July 15. That was the first win in four starts this year for the son of Sea The Stars.
“This is a unique meet, really is,” Joseph said. “I hope to be there the whole meet. This is the format tracks have to go now, the little boutique meets. When you go longer, it can get mundane.”
Joseph’s horses have begun to trickle into the barn area on the Kentucky Downs site. He said he has shipped some from Saratoga and others will be coming from his home base at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
“Some horses will handle the course, some won’t,” he said. “It is so unique. You go down the backside and the course goes down and then it comes up. We did good last year; if we can do as good this year, it would be nice.”
DRF en Espanol returns
Daily Racing Form’s DRF en Español returns on site with complete meet coverage in Spanish. Director Roberto Rodriguez, race announcer David Merida and the rest of the DRF en Español team. The coverage had more than 250,000 unique views last year, Rodriguez said.
The races will be streamed live on DRFenEspanol.com and Youtube.com/DRFenEspanol. Coverage will include daily handicapping, news, stakes analysis, track reports and more. Follow DRF en Español on
Rodriguez believes his coverage was perhaps they’ve done for DRF en Español “but it was a challenge,” he said. “It was especially a challenge for Dave. It’s really hard to call races here. But at the same time, it’s the complexion of the track, the purses, all the jockeys and trainers make it unique. It’s an honor to be here for the second year and ready to go. DRF is the place to be to watch all the races.”
Said Merida: “Not at many tracks do we get the chance to handicap races together with the jockeys. Last year we had the Ortiz brothers sitting at our table and we were really studying different angles. It’s so really accessible to work with the professionals.”
His biggest challenge calling the races? “The sun, after a certain time like maybe around 4 in the afternoon, all the silks look silver at the top of the stretch,” Merida said. “So you have to work more with the numbers, take more care looking at the markings of the horse. The nose. The white markings on the legs. You can look at the monitor. That helps a lot. By the way, announcer Larry Collmus gave us pointers, and that helped a lot.”
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