The 21-day Fall Meet that begins its run at Churchill Downs on Sunday, Oct. 28 is, for many reasons, a stretch of racing to savor.
Its delights include the 138th running of the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare, a race that shares its long history with the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. With next weekâ€™s running of the $5 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic on Saturday, Nov. 3 being perhaps the most wide-open and unpredictable running since that race was launched in 1984, thereâ€™s a real chance the 1 1/8-mild Clark â€“ a Grade I event for older horses â€“ could have an impact on racingâ€™s â€œHorse of the Yearâ€™ race when it is run on the day after Thanksgiving.
On Saturday, Nov. 24, Churchill Downsâ€™ biggest races for 2-year-olds â€“ the $150,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club and the $150,000-added Golden Rod for fillies â€“ will be run for the first time as races that carry valuable points in the â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ and â€œRoad to the Kentucky Oaks,â€ the new points-based systemsÂ that will determine the eligibility for 3-year-olds to run in those races on the first weekend in May 2013.
Weâ€™ll see if Louisiana native Corey Lanerie can continue the Pat Day-like muscle he flexed when he notched his first Churchill Downs riding title with a runaway win in the Spring Meet battle for â€œleading riderâ€ honors. Louisville-born Dale Romans, who has enjoyed the type of year that could put him in the running for a first Eclipse Award as Americaâ€™s top trainer, will try to add the Churchill Downs Fall Meet â€œleading trainerâ€ crown to the title he earned during the Spring Meet, when he saddled 23 winners to collect his ninth career training crown at his hometown track.
On Thanksgiving Day, the track will welcome thousands and will serve nearly 8,000 dinners, complete with holiday trimmings. Generations of families in the region have spent all or part of that wonderful American holiday through the decades beneath Churchill Downsâ€™ historic Twin Spires.
Other racing highlights include the Falls City Handicap, the Thanksgiving Day centerpiece that was first run in the trackâ€™s inaugural year of 1875, and the Mrs. Revere, which annually pits top 3-year-old turf fillies against each other in one of their last opportunities to run against members of their age group.
It blows past us in a seeming instant, but the Fall Meet is most memorable each year not for what we saw, but rather for what we might have seen.
Most prominent among its racing delights is the abundance of talented and promising 2-year-old Thoroughbreds that participate in the meet. The meetâ€™s opening day is devoted exclusively to races for horses in that division, one of two reserved for that age group during the brief meet.
Although the leaves have mostly tumbled to earth by the time the meet wraps up with the sunset on the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day, the Fall Meet at Churchill Downs really embodies the enthusiasm and anticipation otherwise reserved for the emergence of the first blossoms of spring.
In Thoroughbred racing, it is the autumn of the 2-year-old year that hints at possibilities of the following spring, when the Kentucky Derby and Oaks are run and the Triple Crown season puts Thoroughbred racing at center stage in the theater of American sport.
Of those many reasons to look forward to each day of the Fall Meet, none is more magnetic than the races that match high-quality 2-year-olds. Any visit to Churchill Downs in autumn, be it for morning works or racing in the afternoon, holds the possibility that one might witness the first big moment for a star of the following spring.
The Breedersâ€™ Cup will be the industry focus over the next week or so and I look forward to the two days of races that will help define some championship seasons. But most of my attention will be focused on the dirt and turf courses beneath the Twin Spires, and performances that could hint at a magic six months down the road.
Now, a few notes for the road:
- Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has pre-entered his star 4-year-old filly Royal Delta for both the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic and the Ladiesâ€™ Classic. Mott told Daily Racing Form that owner Benjamin Leon, who bought the filly for $8.5 million at Keeneland after her victory in the 2010 Ladiesâ€™ Classic at Churchill Downs, is keeping his options open.
As regular readers know, the author of this column holds Royal Delta in very high regard. She has an outside shot to become the fourth consecutive female to earn â€œHorse of the Yearâ€ honors and a Classic run against males would provide the greatest victory.
- Jockey Rosie Napravnik, whose victory aboard Believe You Can in the 2012 Kentucky Oaks made her the first woman to ride an Oaks winner, plans to ride at Churchill Downs during the Fall Meet. Napravnik will winter at New Orleansâ€™ Fair Grounds, where she has won the past two riding titles.
- Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy, idle since he finished 19th of 20 horses in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, is set to return to competition Saturday in the Grade II Fayette Stakes on synthetic Polytrack at Keeneland.
The Patrick Byrne-trained colt was injured in the Derby and underwent minor ankle surgery. If all goes well in the Fayette, Byrne would likely point Take Charge Indy toward the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Photo by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs