The brief Fall Meet at Churchill Downs is frequently most memorable for its hints of racing’s future embodied in the performances of promising and well-bred 2-year-olds, the horses that could step into racing’s brightest spotlights the following spring in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
There were some promising young horses on display last weekend beneath the venerable Twin Spires, but it was glory of the very recent past and a breathtaking finish in the here-and-now that had most fans talking at the midpoint of the 21-day meet.
The first was a celebration of the scintillating performances in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup of Kentucky-based horses and their owners, trainers, riders and breeders. The stars from the Bluegrass State owned most of the biggest moments of racing’s year-end championships, and most of those horses spent a considerable amount of time at Churchill Downs during the year.
Four of those Breeders’ Cup 2012 equine stars were paraded in the paddock and on the track Sunday afternoon. The glittering roster included Fort Larned, the upset winner of the $5 million Classic; Mile winner Wise Dan, Filly & Mare Sprint winner Groupie Doll and Little Mike, who upset an international field in the Turf.
Fans gathered around the paddock to snap photos and applaud the Breeders’ Cup stars, and their beaming connections seemed to relish the celebration of great moments that were still quite fresh after a week of celebration.
Janis Whitham’s Fort Larned held off Mucho Macho Man in the Classic to provide trainer Ian Wilkes with the biggest win of his surging career. A native of Australia and longtime assistant to two-time Kentucky Derby winner Carl Nafzger, Wilkes was a key player on Nafzger’s team for both of his Derby winners, Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007). But the Classic victory by Fort Larned was Wilkes’ signature moment since going out on his own, though one gets the distinct impression there will be many more.
The victory was an introduction to the national spotlight for jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who guided Fort Larned to his gate-to-wire victory on his pilot’s 27th birthday. The Louisiana-born son of a jockey is now 1-for-1 in Breeders’ Cup competition.
Owner-breeder Whitham was also on hand for Sunday’s celebration. Fort Larned carries the blood of her mare Bayakoa, a star of the 1990s who won a pair of runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (now the Ladies’ Classic).
Morton Fink’s homebred Wise Dan looked ready to run again as his shining chestnut colt left a striking impression on all who watched him walk past. But a Horse of the Year should have that kind of impact, and the 5-year-old gelding likely wrapped up that honor with his course-record victory over 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and other stars in the Mile on the Santa Anita grass.
Based at Keeneland for trainer Charlie Lopresti, Wise Dane ended the year with four consecutive major stakes wins on turf, with the only hiccup in his 2012 schedule being a narrow loss on dirt in Churchill’s Stephen Foster Handicap.
Perhaps the most touching of the celebrations of the Breeders’ Cup 2012 champions was the one surrounding Filly & Mare Sprint winner Groupie Doll, the product of a small family breeding operation in Frankfort, Ky. that has now tasted success on an international scale.
Groupie Doll will is odds-on to become the first horse campaigned by the father-son team of owner-breeder Fred Bradley and trainer Buff to earn an Eclipse Award. She dominated her division in 2012, reeling off a string of breathtaking wins after the younger Bradley outfitted her with blinkers early in the season.
A few years back, the Bradleys enjoyed fairy tale-type success with their homebred Brass Hat, a $2 million earner who traveled around the world to finish second in the Dubai World Cup. He became a Kentucky fan favorite, winning major races on both grass and dirt, before returning home to the farm when his racing days ended.
As wonderful as Brass Hat was, Groupie Doll has taken the Bradleys into uncharted territory – and she’s still young and improving. Buff Bradley clearly relishes every moment that his newest star provides in the spotlight for his father, a former Kentucky state senator who is now moving about with the aid of a walker, but clearly is on the ride of his life.
Rounding out the group of Breeders’ Cup 2012 stars honored at Churchill Downs on Sunday was Little Mike, who scored an upset in the Turf for trainer Dale Romans. Little Mike capped a spectacular year in which he won the Arlington Million and Churchill Downs’ Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Derby Day. He threw in a couple of poor outings during the year, but Little Mike is clearly at his best when the spotlight is at its brightest.
The same could be said of his Louisville-born trainer, who should be among the frontrunners for the Eclipse Award that will honor America’s top trainer. With Grade I winners Little Mike, Shackleford, Dullahan and Tapitsfly in his care, Romans must be on the short list of Eclipse candidates that likely also includes Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert and, perhaps, Doug O’Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another.
But Romans, who grew up under the Twin Spires alongside his late father and veteran Kentucky trainer Jerry Romans, has made a strong case for the big prize – and six weeks remain in the year for an exclamation point.
Though their horse was absent, unbeaten Juvenile winner and soon-to-be 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby was represented at the celebration by members of Starlight Partners, his Louisville-flavored ownership group. Louisville-born Jack Wolf, who manages Starlight, smiled alongside Louisville attorney and civil leader Ed Glasscock, still beaming a week after the most important win of his racing life and looking forward the spring of 2013 with dreams of being at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
It was marvelous to watch the faces of those behind the horses as they congratulated on another, and focused intently on paddock television screen when the stretch drives of their respective races were shared with the crowd. Perhaps they just wanted to see the finish again, or maybe needed to be convinced again that their magic moment really happened.
It was a “feel good” day at Churchill Downs. In times when Kentucky racing and breeding struggles against increasing challenges, Romans summed up the emotion of the day when he proclaimed to the crowd during an interview with Churchill Downs’ Jill Byrne that “Kentucky racing is alive and well.”
May it always be.