Kentucky Derby

The 143rd Kentucky Derby was a massive success. Photo credit: Churchill Downs

This Friday, on Sept. 15, Thoroughbred racing returns to the greatest racetrack in the world — Churchill Downs — for 11 live race dates.  And, like most racing enthusiasts, I can’t wait for the old place to come to life once again in the afternoon with the sound of hoofs meeting dirt and turf; with the clamor of fans riding their bets as hard as jockeys are hustling their horses; with the beautiful ring of the bugle; and with the blare of the track announcer calling the races with the same excitement as a tenor sings the National Anthem.

I will be right there. Blue jeans and boots. The DRF inked up and stuck in my back pocket. And, binoculars dangling off the shoulder. I will pick out my perfect perch in a box in the Third Floor Clubhouse. And, I will swig down an ice cold beverage or two. And, I will watch the greatest sports event known to mankind: the art of Thoroughbred horse racing.

But I will be packing one other essential ingredient: hope.

Hope that the sun will once again shine bright on this old Kentucky home.  Hope that horses stay healthy and jockeys stay safe.  Hope that my good friends and horse trainers — Buff Bradley, Ian Wilkes and Stephen Lyster — all have good meets and their horses run every bit as good as they are people. Hope that fans — casual and hard core, alike — will come out and enjoy the brisk air and warm sun, with their children in tow, to celebrate life and the thrill of a $2 win ticket on their horse; their selection; their bet.

And, of course, I hope that my selections do well on the track, too.  After all, that’s the whole idea of pari-mutuel wagering, right?  That my handicapping is better than yours. That my little nugget of information, buried deep in the past performances, is the ticket to success. That my investigations, due diligence, and horse knowledge is far superior to anyone else that wanders the grounds.

After all, hope does spring eternal.  Even in the fall.

Several years ago, when Turfway Park was purchased by the casino owners in Cincinnati and the track officials announced they wanted to cut back their race dates and give up live racing at the Northern Kentucky racetrack in September, it was Churchill Downs that stepped in and stepped up.   And, all of us that love Thoroughbred racing — and, yep, breeding — should be grateful to the higher ups at Churchill Downs for doing so.

First of all, all the trainers — and their respective horses– who that take advantage of stabling at Churchill for much of year, can run right here at home. And, run over one of the best, safest, most fair, and beautiful race surfaces for both dirt and grass horses in the entire world. No matter what anyone opines, the truth always comes back to facts. And, the fact is that Churchill Downs racing surfaces are pristine.  Period.

Secondly, the track will once again offer some of the best, most exciting races in the entire world — as trainers put in the final, finishing touches for the huge events that are to come over the next six to seven weeks and lead up to the annual Breeders’ Cup extravaganza — which will be held at Del Mar in San Diego this year.  On Saturday, Sept. 16, Churchill Downs will play host to the G2 Pocahontas, the G2 Iroquois Stakes, the G3 Locust Grove Stakes and the Open Mind Stakes. Two weeks later, the track will showcase the G3 Ack Ack Stakes and G2 Lukas Classic and the Jefferson Cup Stakes. Those are sure to attract some of the best runners in the world of Thoroughbred racing.

Third, the track will offer Fun. On both Sept. 21 and 28, Churchill Downs will have Twilight Thursdays, when the first race is posted for 5 p.m. each night.  Bands play. Beer is served. Beautiful people show. And, on Saturday, Sept. 23, the track will play host to the Downs After Dark program of “Bourbon, Bets & Bow Ties.” First race is 6 p.m. And, it is all lights, camera, action time.

Churchill Downs never gets the credit it truly deserves.  Without it, horse racing and — quite honestly, the breeding industry, too — would never exist in this Commonwealth. This track sustains this industry.

Keeneland may be stylish for all 31 days it races per year, and allows all the college kids a place to strut their penny loafers, blue blazers, and sun-kissed, flower dresses that are way too short for any father worth their weight.  Turfway may be necessary, as it races for the brutal winter months. Ellis Park may be a tribute to summer time, picnic fun. And, Kentucky Downs may be unique, what with its 5-days of festival of racing and European-styled turf track.

But it is Churchill Downs that carries this industry in this Commonwealth.  On its back. All the way from the Kentucky Derby to Thanksgiving Day Turkey buffets. It keeps the barn area open nearly all year for racing stables to train (and its’ those horses that fill the races at all the other tracks in Kentucky). It keeps the track prepped and maintained, for the safety of all participants — both horses and those that climb on them every single day. It stages our state’s most historic and recognized annual event — watched around the world. It puts and keeps Kentucky on the world map and kick starts the economic engine that drives the world of Thoroughbred racing and breeding. Period.

And, we are all fortunate in this community, to call the track what it truly is — iconic.  But, more importantly, we should call the track what is has become — fan friendly; family appropriate; fun and entertaining; and our home turf. I grew up just a furlong or two from Keeneland.  Grew up loving it. But I call Louisville home now. And, I have grown to love Churchill Downs, too. For all the reasons listed above.

Welcome back, old friend.  Good to see you, again.

Saratoga Numbers Show Track Surfaces Need Improvement:

About a month ago, we wrote, right here in this space, that the track surfaces at Ellis Park sounded exceeding better than the ones at Saratoga — one of the most premier racetracks and race meets in the world. We wrote about our visit to The Spa.  And, we wrote about our visit to Ellis Park.  And, we noted that, at the time, the sound of horses hitting on those two racetracks was remarkably noticeable.

Now, the facts are in.  And, we were right.  In a story published in The Daily Racing Form on Friday, Sept. 8, writer David Grening dug into the issues of breakdowns that occurred at Saratoga this summer. Grening writes:

“On the negative side, the equine fatality rate was high this summer with 15 total racing or training-related fatalities during the meet, one more than last year.  The 15 doesn’t include two horses who died of colic. Eight of the 15 fatalities occurred on the main track, with four more coming in turf races.”

Grening goes on to pen this: “In addition to the fatalities, there were many horses who we’re injured during the meet, including Schuylerville winner Dream It Is and Sanford winner Copper Bullet. Several prominent trainers, such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin and Ian Wilkes, stopped working their horses over the main track and almost exclusively utilized the Oklahoma training track.”

I love Saratoga.  I try to go every year. But the New York Racing Association needs to fix these issues. Immediately.

Construction Will Alter Traffic, Parking for Some Select Guests During September Meet:

Work has begun on a new parking alignment at Churchill Downs that will help the track accommodate the tremendous traffic issues and burdens during major events — like Derby week and the Breeders’ Cup. As a result, the track has had to make a few detours for some select customers that plan to attend the races this September.

The construction project is in preliminary stage until final approvals and permits from the Louisville Metro Government are finalized. The improvements aim to advance the overall traffic and parking flow for guests who visit the historic racetrack throughout the year. Other improvements include a promenade for guest to safely enter and exit the racetrack from and to the parking areas, and other landscaping amenities.

Personnel, signs and electronic message boards will be in place to assist and alert guests about the temporary closures and direct all to appropriate parking lots.

The track is encouraging all regular visitors to take a trip to the track to familiarize themselves with some of the changes.