The Spring Meet at Churchill Downs is set to complete its tornado-abbreviated 38-day run on Monday, July 4. If the previous 33 days of racing is any kind of barometer, look for unusual and interesting things to happen over the last five days of spring racing beneath the Twin Spires.
After all, two of the top three races of the meet – the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap – were won by horses that had previously competed on grass and synthetic courses, but never on natural dirt. Those winners – Animal Kingdom in the Derby, and Pool Play in the Foster – returned win mutuels of $43.80 and $75.20, respectively.
We’ve witnessed a girl whipping the boys in the mile and a half Louisville Handicap, with Keertana’s win in a three-horse photo finish marking the first time a female had won the race that was first run in 1895.
Last Saturday was highlighted by an upset victory by Flashy Lassie in the 111th running of the $100,000-added Debutante Stakes. Her only career start had been an easy win against $20,000 claiming horses, but trainer Garry Simms was confident she could handle the step-up to face young stakes horses and she rallied from off a sizzling pace to win the race for 2-year-old fillies comfortably under jockey Kent Desormeaux.
Simms’ smile after the surprise victory by Flashy Lassie was priceless. The veteran trainer has been battling melanoma since early 2010 and was rewarded Saturday with his first stakes victory beneath the Twin Spires. On Monday, he was back in the hospital for further treatment.
While Kentucky-born Hall of Famer Woody Stephens’ streak of saddling five consecutive winners of the Belmont Stakes is safe in terms of historic streaks, Kentucky-based Ken McPeek has fashioned a marvelous, and probably unmatched, streak of his own during the Churchill Downs Spring Meet. The Lexington native has won five consecutive graded stakes races beneath the Twin Spires.
McPeek is finished for the spring in terms of stakes races, so we’ll wait until fall to see if he can extend that hot streak.
And when it comes to hot streaks, jockey Julien Leparoux appears ready to redefine the phrase hot.
Corey Lanerie, a wonderfully talented and underrated jockey searching for this first riding title at Churchill Downs, topped by “leading rider” standings by 11 wins just a couple of weeks ago.
But then seven-time riding king Leparoux went to work and quickly turned the race around. He has roared from behind over two weeks and opened a 45-40 lead when he caught Lanerie on the wire to win Sunday’s final race.
Five days remain in the meet, so Lanerie has time to regain momentum, but that effort had best gain some steam on Thursday when the meet’s final five days get underway.
And, as brilliant as the meet’s top performers have been, the star of the 38-day session could well be a claiming horse.
Ready’s Rocket, an 8-year-old veteran with 63 lifetime starts under his belt, is a steady and honest performer in racing’s lower claiming ranks – but he’s something special at Churchill Downs. Trainer Tim Glyshaw, who also owns a piece of the veteran star with Deann Baer and Margaret Woodside, saddled Ready’s Rocket on Sunday for an easy victory under Calvin Borel in a starter allowance race for horses that had run for a claiming tag of $5,000 or less over the last two years.
The Rocket responded with a ridiculously easy victory in which Borel was peeking over his shoulder for competition at the head of the stretch. It was the 10th career victory for Ready’s Rocket beneath the Twin Spires, the highest victory total for any horse in at least the last 25 years and, perhaps, farther back in Downs history.
He is 18-for-63 lifetime, but Ready’s Rocket is the recent victory king of Churchill Downs with a record of 10-3-3 in 28 starts at the track.
While all racing fans dream of winning a Kentucky Derby or a major stakes race, a large percentage of owners would love to have a horse like Ready’s Rocket in their barn. He’ll never run in a Breeders’ Cup race, but he commands ultimate respect in the starter allowance ranks and almost always turns in a good effort.
I’m keeping fingers crossed that, with a couple of racing cards yet to be drawn as of this writing, that a race will pop up over closing weekend for this unique star. Ready’s Rocket is a horse for everyman, and he’s doing so well now it would be great fun to see him compete beneath the Spires one more time before the meet is up.
Two stakes races remain in the Spring Meet – the 110th running of the Bashford Manor for 2-year-olds on Saturday and the $175,000-added Firecracker Handicap for older horses on the grass on the meet’s closing day, Monday, July 4.
Throw in a final “Downs After Dark” night racing card on Friday, and the Spring Meet should end on a high note. The stakes races will be strong and we should see several promising 2-year-olds in maiden races over the final five racing days. Those young horses – who will be eligible for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks next year – are ready to run and the potential is there to see eventual major contenders for those races take their baby steps over the next five days.
Even the off-days of this meeting have been interesting – with the Wednesday, June 22 tornado on the backside taking top honors there. It’s tough to predict what will happen over the meet’s final five days, but if they are anything like the preceding 33 racing days, I think there is one guarantee.
Those days will be fun. See you beneath the Twin Spires – and Happy Independence Day to all!