Actually, three racing sessions remained in our heat-shortened meet as I settled at the keyboard to compose this piece, so it’s possible I might miss a highlight or two turned in during the closing weekend of triple-digit temperatures beneath the Twin Spires.
If so, we’ll revisit. But, for now, let’s forge ahead with our recognition of the horses and humans that turned in the best performances of the 28-day meet:
PERFORMANCE OF THE MEET: I’ll Have Another in the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Owner J.P. Reddam’s colt turned in a rousing run from post 19 in a Derby that might not rank with the best runs in Kentucky Derby history, but it was pretty darned good. After settling nicely in fourth behind the scorching pace set by trainer Bob Baffert’s Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another rallied in deep stretch to overcome a rival that looked pretty close to unbeatable at the head of the stretch.
As impressive as the victory by the Doug O’Neill-trained colt appeared, it was flattered by an even more dramatic victory over the same rival two weeks later in the Preakness, which put I’ll Have Another on the verge of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
We all know what happened then and how the defection of I’ll Have Another from the Belmont Stakes took the air out of racing’s collective balloon, but that does not diminish his brilliance at Churchill Downs.
Runner-up; ROYAL DELTA in the Fleur De Lis Handicap – If there had been a bit more at stake and the opposition was a little tougher, this effort by the Bill Mott-trained 4-year-old filly Royal Delta might have made the top of the list.
Crowned the champion 3-year-old filly of 2011 after her win at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic last fall, trainer Bill Mott’s daughter of Empire Maker lost her first two races of this year (although a run against males in the Dubai World Cup should be forgotten because she endured a horrendous journey in that race.
Her march to victory in the Fleur De Lis was sublime, and she whipped a horse in runner-up Alfeeting Lady that I think could win a couple of significant races by the end of the year.
Royal Delta has the stuff to be the fourth consecutive female to earn the America’s Horse of the Year honor. If she handles business against members of her agenda the rest of the season and beats a male once or twice – and the group of U.S. older males appears solid, but not overwhelming in terms of talent – she has a great chance to join the ranks of Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace as female Horse of the Year winners. And she would belong there.
TOP TRAINER: GARRY SIMMS – Heading into the final three sessions of the Spring Meet, the leading trainer roster was topped by Dale Romans (18 wins), Tom Amoss (16) and Steve Asmussen (14). Strong performances all, but Simms gets the honor regardless of what happened in the meet’s last three sessions. Heading into Friday night’s races, Simms had saddled nine starters and visited the winner’s circle six times. One of those was a victory by unbeaten Blueeyesintherein in the Debutante Stakes, and he had a chance for another stakes victory with Circle Unbroken in the Bashford Manor Stakes.
Simms achieved this success mostly with horses he had picked out of the sales ring and did so while in the third year of a rugged battle with multiple myeloma. Considering all factors, I’ll take Simms’ body of work – and his ongoing battle against cancer – over the higher win totals from the big stables.
TOP JOCKEY: COREY LANERIE – This call is the easiest of the meet’s-end honors, as Louisiana-born jockey Corey Lanerie made a laugh out of the race for leading jockey of the spring. His domination, especially in the final month of the meet, could only be compared to dominant performances by retired Pat Day, the meet’s all-time win leader.
Lanerie had 66 wins heading into the Spring Meet’s final weekend and had a 26-win bulge over runner-up Shaun Bridgmohan. Another number that put Lanerie in Day territory: through Friday, June 29 he had averaged 1.89 wins-per-day. Of his final win total, six came in a single-day on May 27. It was a career-best performance by Lanerie, and he flirted with the track’s all-time record of seven wins in a single day, shared by Day and Julien Leparoux.
RACE OF THE MEET (PENDING FINAL WEEKEND STAKES RESULTS): SUCCESSFUL DAN WINS THE ALYSHEBA – Trainer Charlie Lopresti guided Successful Dan through a layoff well over a year because a tendon injury, and his 6-year-old star overcame traffic troubles to whip a good field and set a track record for 1 1/16 miles in the Alysheba on Kentucky Oaks Day. Next in line: Groupie Doll dominates the Grade I Humana Distaff in a track record-setting performance for the Frankfort, Ky.-based duo of co-owner and breeder Fred Bradley and trainer Buff Bradley, his son; 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford wins the Churchill Downs on Derby Day for Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans; and Ron the Greek rallies along the rail in the final jump to edge favored Wise Dan in the Stephen Foster Handicap for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, Churchill Downs’ all-time win leader.
*MOST INFLUENTIAL PLAYER: MOTHER NATURE – Put an asterisk on this one, because the meet’s most controversial figure was neither horse nor human. But no meet in the 138-year history of Churchill Downs was impacted more by Mother Nature than the Spring Meet of 2012.
The racing session debuted on “Opening Night” with a pummeling by softball-sized hail stones, which resulted in a delay of the night’s program.
On Kentucky Oaks Day, a severe thunderstorm warning prompted a temporary evacuation of the tens of thousands of fans in the infield – a first for either Derby or Oaks weekend. The track and the crowd got lucky as the storm dipped to the South at the last minute.
The final blow was the record triple-digit heat of the meet’s final week that resulted in the cancellation of the Thursday, June 28 program – the first heat-related cancellation in track history – and the move of the final Friday and Sunday programs of the meet under the lights in an effort to get a break from the heat.
Photo Courtesy of Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs