With the Fourth of July falling on Monday, I’ve landed in an odd spot for handing out “Best of the 2011 Spring Meet” honors for the 38-day racing session that, by the time you read this, will have concluded.
But as I wrote this, there were still races to be run that could have an impact on my meet-end honors, but I’ll bravely forge ahead with the Asher honors for Spring 2011.
It was a memorable meet for many reasons, a 38-day session that saw records tumble and, for one day in late June, the sky fall, as well.
The Kentucky Derby attracted a crowd of 164,858 to break a Derby Day attendance record set in the Centennial Derby in 1974, a record that many observers felt would be safe for a long while – if not forever.
But they came to the track on Derby Day and saw a first in the Run for the Roses when Team Valor International’s Animal Kingdom became the first horse in history to win the Derby without the benefit of a previous race on natural dirt.
All of his races had come on synthetic or grass courses, including his final prep in the Vinery Racing Spiral (formerly the Lane’s End, formerly the Jim Beam, formerly the Spiral) at Turfway Park.
With Animal Kingdom’s accomplishment, almost every nugget of conventional wisdom in Derby handicapping has been tossed aside or completely shattered in recent years. Standing strong is this: the last horse to win the Derby without a race as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882.
I look for that one to go any time now.
Speaking of records, a week before the Kentucky Derby Churchill Downs held its first ever Spring Meet “Opening Night” under the lights and crowd of 38,142 turned out to kick-off the meet and Derby Week. The attendance was a Churchill Downs record for a non Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks or Breeders’ Cup racing program.
Then, on Wednesday, June 22, the sky fell – albeit briefly. A small tornado spun out of seemingly nowhere and blasted portions of the Churchill Downs stable area. Six and half barns were damaged too badly to be used during the rest of the meet, but there were no injuries to horses or humans.
Derby and other wonders notwithstanding, the latter remains the most remarkable statistic of the Spring Meet.
Acknowledging those meet highlights, here are my Spring Meet honors which, given something remarkable over its closing three days, could be adjusted slightly.
Race of the meet: Louisville Handicap (May 28) – They ran a mile and half on the grass, but the result came down to a question of inches that separated three horses. The winner was Barbara Hunter’s Keertana, a 5-year-old mare trained by Tom Proctor who beat the boys and became the first of her gender to win a race that was first run in 1895. Bearpath was second and Guys Reward third. I’ve seen a lot of great finishes at Churchill Downs, but could name 10 (Derby, Oaks and Breeders’ Cup included) that were more fun to watch than this one.
Horse of the meet: Glen Hill Farm’s Banned – It will be a surprise if this rising 3-year-old grass star, also trained by Proctor, does not return to Churchill Downs in the fall as a top American player for either the Breeders’ Cup Mile or Turf. He easily won the American Turf and Jefferson Cup and will be a name you’ll be hearing in late summer.
Rising stars that could be important horses later in the year: 1. Banned 2. Dominus 3. Noble’s Promise 4. Power World 5. Sassy Image 6. Salty Strike 7. C.J. Russell 8. Flashy Lassie 9. Apart 10. Spring Eclipse
Best Decision by a trainer: Mark Casse sent Pool Play to Churchill Downs to run in the Stephen Foster, believing that his horse – who had raced only on grass and synthetic in 26 previous races – would run well over Churchill Downs’ distinctive dirt course. Pool Play won the Foster at odds of 36-1 and is now being pointed toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be run over the same track on Nov. 5.
Jockey: We have a 1 and 1A here. The 1A is Corey Lanerie, who looked from the last week of April through the second week of June that he would win his first Churchill Downs riding title in a walk. But the 1 is Julien Leparoux, who unleashed a torrent of wins in a three-week meet-ending hot streak that rivaled the best of Pat Day. Leparoux looked like a lock for the title with three days to go.
Trainer: Ken McPeek – The Lexington native was battling with Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss and Eddie Kenneally for leading trainer honors heading into the final weekend. He gets the edge for his remarkable streak of five consecutive wins in graded stakes races that will be alive when racing returns in the fall.
Honorable mention (2): Tim Glyshaw – Every horse Glyshaw sent to the post seemed ready to run – including super claimer Ready’s Rocket, who extended his modern-day record for Churchill Downs wins to 11 with a pair of victories. Garry Simms: the veteran trainer continues a remarkable battle against melanoma, but 60 percent of his starters finished in the money and he won his first stakes race beneath the Twin Spires when Flashy Lassie won the Debutante.
Thanks for a great Spring Meet. See you on Oct. 30 to kick off Breeders’ Cup Week at Churchill Downs.