The swiftness of the passing of the Churchill Downs Fall Meet is always a surprise, even to those who have spent a large chunk of their lives around the home of the Kentucky Derby. But the 21-day racing session has come and gone after having been launched with a healthy shot of Breeders’ Cup-fueled adrenaline and ended with a bittersweet farewell to 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird.
Between the Halloween opener and the meet’s first ever Sunday-after-Thanksgiving close were enough exciting on-track moments for a whole racing year, and some non-racing moments that will linger with those who witnessed them for a long time to come.
As one fortunate enough to be here every day with total track access, here are some quick thoughts on Fall Meet racing highlights and more.
BEST RACE – A no-brainer here, since the Breeders’ Cup Classic duel between the victorious Blame and the almost-perfect Zenyatta instantly landed fairly high on almost anyone’s list of the greatest and most dramatic contests in American racing history.
Blame proved his quality as he provided legendary Claiborne Farm with a signature moment in its centennial year, while Zenyatta erased any doubt that she was indeed the real deal and one of the most exceptional mares in American racing history.
Runners-up (track division): the rough-and-tumble Clark Handicap won via disqualification by Giant Oak over original winner Successful Dan, who was dropped to third by stewards, and performances bursting with potential by the 2-year-old filly Dancinginherdreams for trainer John Ward Jr. in the Pocahontas and juvenile colt Dialing In, who overcame many traffic woes in a memorable maiden victory for Nick Zito.
TRAINER – A small edge to Al Stall Jr., who completed his breakthrough year with the Classic win by Blame and a victory by Apart in the Ack Ack Handicap among his six wins in 14 starts, over Hall of Famer and all-time Churchill Downs win leader Bill Mott, whose seven victories included the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic win by Unrivaled Belle.
Honorable mention: Chicago-based trainer Chris Block won three stakes races – including the Thanksgiving weekend prizes in the Falls City with Dundalk Dust and Giant Oak’s Clark win – and each winner was bred in Illinois.
JOCKEY – Another photo finish here between Shaun Bridgmohan and Rosemary Homeister Jr., with a slight edge to the former. Bridgmohan notched 23 wins, good for third behind leading rider Julien Leparoux, with four of them in stakes. The regular stable rider for leading trainer Steve Asmussen won four stakes races, including three of the four major races over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend – including a win aboard Santiva over Asmussen’s favored Astrology in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
Homeister arrived from Delaware Park as a breath of fresh air and, to the surprise of many who had not followed her career through the years, a very skillful addition to the jockey colony. She won 16 races in her first Churchill Downs meet and her enthusiasm and obvious love for her craft endeared her instantly to fans and growing numbers of owners and trainers. She’ll be back in the Spring Meet.
Honorable mention: With nine wins and a strong close on the meet, 17-year-old apprentice Marcelino Pedroza Jr., nephew of California-based Martin Pedroza, displayed the developing tools and style of a rider with a very big future.
OWNER – This should be named the “Ken and Sarah Ramsey” trophy as they collected their record 17 Churchill Downs “Leading Owner” crown, but I’m giving a slight edge to WinStar Farm, which capped a big year in which it won the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. WinStar won three races and hit the board with seven of 12 starters, and one of those wins was by Brethren, a 2-year-old half-brother to Super Saver who will surely be chasing roses next spring. Penny Lauer, whose horses are trained by husband Mike, won three of eight outings during the meet.
DERBY 137 HOPES WHO RAN DURING THE MEET: 1. Uncle Mo, 2. Dialed In, 3. Santiva 4. Brethren,, 5. Shadow Warrior/Tapizar
OAKS 137 HOPES WHO RAN DURING THE MEET: 1. Dancinginherdreams, 2. Kathmanblu, 3. Awesome Feather, 4. Victoria’s Wildcat, 5. Missyoulikecrazy
BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC 2011 HOPES WHO RAN DURING THE MEET:
1., , , Morning Line, 2. Successful Dan, 3. Fly Down, 4. Giant Oak, 5. Redding Colliery
HONORED TO BE THERE MOMENT – I came as close as ever to shedding a tear in the winner’s circle when French-based Goldikova won in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, her unprecedented third consecutive victory over males in the race won by her mother, Miesque, in the first Churchill Downs Cup in 1988. And her connections want to return to Churchill Downs next year in search of #4.
FAVORITE MOMENTS (NON-RACING):
ZENYATTA SAYS GOODBYE – Trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Anne Moss allowed the big mare to spend virtually the entire day after the Nov. 6 Classic grazing outside her barn, and allowing fans with barn area access and those who stopped along Longfield Avenue to stop, see and, in many cases, touch the remarkable mare. Her demeanor and connection with fans is one of the warmest, most remarkable things I’ve seen in racing.
GOODBYE MINE THAT BIRD – Closing day was dedicated to the little gelding from New Mexico who shocked the world with his 50-1 victory in Kentucky Derby 135. Co-owners Dr. Leonard Blach and Mark Allen and trainer Chip Woolley were beneath the Twin Spires and were choked up more than once in an unabashedly sentimental farewell to the horse whose unlikely dream will keep the Kentucky Derby dreams of many owners, trainers, jockeys, breeders and everyday fans burning brightly.
FAREWELL TO MIKE HARGRAVE – As director of stalls at Churchill Downs, Mike is an under-the-radar guy to the general public. But he accomplished the nearly impossible task of satisfying owners and trainers through Kentucky Derbies and seven runnings of the Breeders’ Cup during his 31 year career. Best of luck to Mike as he retires on Dec. 31 and goes to work on his golf game, and to son Steve, his father’s successor.