Churchill Downs has been the scene of many historic races and special moments since its debut meet in 1875, but few of the track's racing meets held each year since have seen as many historic 'firsts' – including an unusual blast from Mother Nature – as the 2011 Spring Meet concluded its 38-day run with an Independence Day program on Monday, July 4.
The venerable track's record books underwent serious adjustment following a record-smashing 137th running of the $2 million-guaranteed Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) on Saturday, May 7 that established a new standard for attendance at America's greatest race; a special Spring Meet “Opening Night” under the track's permanent lights set an attendance mark of its own; a continuation of the success of the special “Downs After Dark” night racing programs; and the remarkable recovery by the track and its horsemen from a rare tornado that blasted sections of its stable area on Wednesday, June 22.
Spring Meet racing highlights included first-of-their-kind wins by Team Valor International's Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby and William Farish Jr.'s Pool Play in the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI), with each horse making history by becoming the first to win their respective races in their first runs over traditional dirt; a victory by Peachtree Stable's Plum Pretty in the richest running of the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (GI); a remarkable and ongoing streak of five consecutive victories in graded stakes races by horses trained by Ken McPeek; an historic win over males in the $100,000 Louisville Handicap (GIII) by Barbara Hunter's homebred Keertana; a glimpse at racing's future stars in victories by Barry L. King's Flashy Lassie in the $100,000-added Debutante (GIII) for 2-year-old fillies and Stoneway Farm's Exfactor in the $100,000-added Bashford Manor (GIII); and the first race for horses of the Arabian breed ever conducted beneath the track's venerable Twin Spires.
The tornado that ripped through the Churchill Downs backside on June 22 resulted in the cancellation of racing the following day – a rare cancellation of an entire racing program at the track. Despite damage that forced the evacuation of horses from six and a half barns for the rest of the meet and battered the track's backside chapel, no humans or horses were injured in the storm that the National Weather Service said packed top winds of 105 miles per hour and was rated F1 on the Fujita scale. Racing resumed at the track with a “Downs After Dark” night racing program on Friday, June 24, and the 6 p.m. (EDT) first race went off just shy of 48 hours after the storm hit the track. National Weather Service records indicate it was the first tornado to hit Churchill Downs since an unusual January storm took a similar path through the property in 1928.
“This Spring Meet will long be memorable for milestones and memories highlighted by Derby Day attendance that surpassed a record that had had been untouched for nearly 40 years, but the response by our community, our horsemen and our team in the aftermath of the June 22 tornado was an unexpected example of what makes Churchill Downs so very special,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs. “In the minutes and hours after the unexpected storm, people from every area of this track joined together to ensure the safety and well-being of every horse and individual touched by the storm. The support offered by the many public service agencies, headed by the Louisville Fire Department, and people throughout our industry and community was incredibly gratifying.
“In terms of business, it was a very strong meet kicked off by the first 'Opening Night' celebration for the Spring Meet and Derby Week – a night so successful it became an instant part of Kentucky Derby tradition. The continued strength and growth of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, with the growing 'Taste of Derby' celebration and the continuing Kentucky Oaks fundraising partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure©, is tremendously exciting. And 'Downs After Dark' night racing continues to be one of our industry's shining success stories. Churchill Downs continues to operate in competitive business climate and the playing field on which we face our top competitors is far from level, but our team continues to strive for innovative ways to attract fans and horses in an effort to keep our track at the forefront of American racing now and in the future.”
The brightest of the Spring Meet's highlights came, as usual, on the first Saturday in May when 164,858 fans witnessed the Kentucky Derby victory by Animal Kingdom. The attendance figure surpassed the previous standard of 163,628 established at the Centennial Derby in 1974. The race provided the first victories in America's greatest race for owner/breeder Team Valor International, trainer H. Graham Motion and jockey John Velazquez. Wagering at Churchill Downs on the full Kentucky Derby Day race card, was $23.4 million, an increase of 9.0 percent over 2010's on-track wagering total of $21.5 million. On-track wagering on the Derby race was $11.5 million, an increase of 4.2 percent over the $11.1 million wagered one year earlier.
All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby card was $165.2 million, the third-highest in Derby history and an increase of 1.5 percent over the prior year's $162.7 million. All-sources handle on the Derby race itself as $112.0 million, flat with 2010's $112.7 million. The spectacular Kentucky Derby Day was preceded by another successful renewal of the Kentucky Oaks, which attracted a crowd of 110,122, the third-largest in history, that watched Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert earn his second victory in America's premier race for 3-year-old fillies with Peachtree Stable's Plum Pretty. The Atlanta-based Peachtree Stable partnership and jockey Martin Garcia earned their first Oaks wins.
On-track Kentucky Oaks guests, many adorned in pink for the Oaks' third annual “Pink Out” to support breast cancer awareness, wagered $12.1 million on the full Oaks Day race card, which was an increase of 2.1 percent over 2010's on-track total of $11.9 million. On-track wagering on the Oaks race was $3.0 million, an increase of 7.4 percent over the $2.8 million wagered one year earlier. All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Oaks card set a record of $37.5 million, an increase of 4.2 percent over the prior year's 36.0 million. All-sources handle on the Oaks race itself was $11.4 million, up 8.2 percent over 2010's $10.6 million.
This spring's Kentucky Derby and Oaks Week activities again provided a significant financial boost to national and local charities. The third year of the Kentucky Oaks partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure raised $110,122 for the work of the world's largest breast cancer outreach and funding organization. Since the start of the partnership with Komen for the Cure in 2009, $328,468 has been raised for breast cancer research. Another $30,000 was generated on Oaks Day for Horses and Hope, the breast cancer outreach initiative in Kentucky's horse industry headed by First Lady Jane Beshear that has now received $90,000 over three years through its Oaks fundraising partnership. And 'Taste of Derby,' the Derby Week celebration of racing life and food from racing cities held for the second consecutive year at the Mellwood Arts Center, generated $20,000 for Dare to Care, a Louisville food bank that has served needy residents since 1971.
The first 'Opening Night' under Churchill Downs' permanent lights to kick off the Spring Meet and Derby Week proved an immediate and rousing success when 38,142 fans flocked to the track on Saturday, April 30. The attendance was the highest in Churchill Downs' three years of night racing and set an attendance record for a non-Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks or Breeders' Cup World Championships racing program. “Downs After Dark” racing on the meet's final three Friday evening programs provided strong evidence that the region continues to embrace the unique night racing experience presented by Churchill Downs. The first “Downs After Dark” session of 2011 on June 17 attracted 23,332, and attendance grew to 25,523 on June 24. The meet's final “Downs After Dark” program on July 1 was its largest at 27,787.
Churchill Downs continued to offer horses and patrons strong and competitive fields of horses in each age and gender division. There were 3,265 starters in the meet's 408 races for an average of 7.99 starters per race, which was an increase from the 2010 average of 7.75 horses in 439 races during a 42-day Spring Meet.
The strength of wagering over Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks weekend contributed to a pair of purse increases implemented during the meet. The first was a 10 percent increase in overnight purses effective on Thursday June 9. That increase was followed by a 15 jump in overnight purses for the final three weeks of the meet that went into effect on June 16. Racing on Thursday, June 23 was cancelled because of tornado damage, but eight of that day's scheduled nine races were made up during the meet's closing weekend.
In the meet's “human races,” jockey Julien Leparoux rode a torrid hot streak over the meet's final three weeks to erase a large lead held by Corey Lanerie to earn the Spring Meet riding title. It was the eighth Churchill Downs riding crown for the 27-year-old Leparoux and his fourth Spring Meet title for the 27-year-old native of Senlis France. The final margin was 53-47 for Leparoux, who also collected his 500th career victory at Churchill Downs during the meet's final weekend, becoming just the 10th rider to achieve that milestone.
Shaun Bridgmohan finished third in the jockey race with 36 wins and 2010 Spring Meet win leader Calvin Borel was next with 33. The race for the leading trainer of the meet came down its final furlong of the last of the meet's 408 races. Steve Asmussen held off McPeek and Eddie Kenneally by an 18-17 margin to earn his fifth consecutive training title and his tenth overall. Peter Callaghan's Ballyclough, trained by McPeek, led with an eighth of a mile remaining in the meet finale, but finished third to Richard, Bertram and Elaine Klein's Windswept.
Although McPeek fell short in his bid a title, he ended the meet on one of the most notable streaks in Churchill Downs history. McPeek has saddled the winner in his last five graded stakes races at the track, a streak that will carry over to the Fall Meet that begins Oct. 30. His winners included the Dogwood (GIII) with Salty Strike, the Aristides (GIII) with Noble's Promise, the Early Times Mint Julep Handicap (GIII) with My Baby Baby, the Matt Winn (GIII) with Scotus and the Regret (GIII) with Bizzy Caroline.
The victory by the appropriately-named Windswept in the meet's last race was a fitting finale for trainer Steve Margolis, whose barn 23 was the structure most severely damaged by the tornado 2 ½ weeks earlier. Margolis ended the meet with 11 wins, good for seventh in the overall standings.
While familiar faces swept the leading rider and trainer titles, newcomer Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., owned by Richard and Karen Papiese, sent out eight winners to collect its first “leading owner” title at Churchill Downs. Seventeen-time leading owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey tied with Jay Em Ess Stable of Mace and Samantha Siegel for the runner-up spot with six wins, while the partnership of trainer Merrill Scherer, Dan Lynch and Ken Sentel won five races.
Along with the record attendance for the Kentucky Derby and the Spring Meet “Opening Night” celebration, and the first-on-dirt wins in the Derby by Animal Kingdom and the Stephen Foster, other
Spring Meet “firsts” in the meet included:
Keertana's victory in the 74th running Louisville Handicap, which had been run over various surfaces and distances since its initial running in 1895. The Tom Proctor-trained 5-year-old mare became to the first of her gender to win the Louisville in any of its previous forms and earned the win in a dramatic three-horse photo-finish over Bearpath and Guys Reward.
Morton Fink's homebred Wise Dan won the $175,000-added Firecracker Handicap Presented by GE (GII) on the meet's closing day. It was his first race on grass in 10 career starts. The one-mile race has been run on grass in 19 of its 21 runnings and the Charles Lopresti-trained Wise Dan became the first horse to win the Firecracker without a previous race on turf.
Sam Vasquez's T M Fred Texas became the first winner of an Arabian race at Churchill Downs when when he won Grade I, $52,500 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup by 9 ¼ lengths June 18. The race was part of a one-year partnership with Abu Dhabi and the Emirates Equestrian Federation. The Arabian race was one of five stakes events offered on Stephen Foster Day presented by Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Racing returns to Churchill Downs on Sunday, Oct. 30 for the 122nd Fall Meet, a 21-day stand that will be highlighted by the return of the Breeders' Cup World Championships to the track on Nov. 4 and 5.
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