LOOKING AT CHURCHILL'S SPRING MEET
Casting light on the view: Churchill's new permanent lights -- to be used in twilight/night sessions on four consecutive Fridays (June 11-July 2) in the spring and two in the fall-- are dazzling at sunset and in the dark. They are jolting, to be kind, in the daytime. Traditionalists understandably bemoan the obstructionist poles that now will grace Derby photos. If only they could be disguised as palm trees. Instead, it looks like NASCAR. Having said that, it's the price of progress. And the night cards -- wisely limited to keep them as an event with cache in the community -- will provide some of the brightest spots this meet post-Derby.
Where are the horses?: All the Derby prospects likely to make the field are on Churchill property, a far larger early assembly than usual. It's the stalls with the rank-and-file horses that have the vacancies.
This is shaping up as a horse-challenged meet. You can see that just from the first two days of entries: Four of Saturday's 11 races are six-horse fields, including three of the first four. Sunday's card averages only 7.1 betting interests per race.
And the purse money is good, even if it's been stagnant or declined the last five or six years. The problem for stables continues to be what to do after Churchill closes July 4. Ellis Park, with its limited days and uncertain future, is not an option for many. This sounds like a broken record, but horses are streaming out of the state to Indiana, Delaware and Pennsylvania, with their slots-fattened purses and easier competition.
Now add into the mix the fact that Monmouth Park will offer $1 million a day in purses when it opens in late May.
The Kentucky circuit is under siege, with even Keeneland greatly impacted by seriously short fields. Some suggest that was because a lot of outfits don't want to run over synthetic surfaces. That could be one factor. Except then you'd think there'd be more horses waiting to run here.
While other tracks also struggle mightily for horses, Churchill and Keeneland arenít supposed to be just any other track.
Kudos: It's nice to see the opening-day Derby Trial a meaningful race again, with its Grade III status restored and purse doubled to $200,000, thanks to sponsorship that makes it officially The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial.
Churchill Downs made the right move in renaming the Oaks Day Louisville Distaff the La Troienne, after taking that name away from another stakes renamed the Eight Belles. Owner Jess Jackson has not yet issued a statement saying what race Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will run in, but based on her smashing six-furlong work this past Monday, it's a safe bet it's the $400,000 La Troienne at 1 1/16 miles.
The stakes now known simply as the Churchill Downs (the handicap was dropped last year) will be a gangbuster and should push the Grade II seven-furlong stakes for males over to Grade I status next year. Among the probables: Grade I Carter winner Warrior's Reward, defending champion Accredit, Arizona speedster Atta Boy Roy and stakes winners Musket Man (third in last yearís Derby) Kensei, Ventana, Together Indy and Country Day.
Derby draw: Without ESPN televising the event, the Derby post-position process for the first time since 1997 will be a good old-fashioned luck of the draw, without the second layer of having horsesí representatives pick their starting post. Though having it at Fourth Street Live! did add pizzazz for the participants, the broadcast itself was hardly scintillating TV. Now it goes back to being at the track, this Wednesday at noon.
What's new: No racing Tuesday of Derby week, as Churchill immediately jumps into its four-day weeks.
Churchill's first night racing, June 11, will be themed "Disco at the Downs." It serves as the prelude to the welcome return of Kentucky Derby Alumni Day to coincide with the June 12 Stephen Foster card. This year's Alumni Day will be a "Salute to the '70s," hence the disco tie-in. The event also will have a fund-raising component for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
The Stephen Foster is likely to attract unbeaten Zenyatta, as it meets her camp's preferred criteria: Grade I and 1 1/8 miles and over the surface where the Breeders' Cup Classic will be held this year.
Celebrated newcomers: Joining the Churchill jockey colony are Corey Nakatani and Alex Solis. Garrett Gomez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner, is scheduled to ride here until Monmouth Park opens May 22. Between the three, that's 11,468 career victories added to jocks' room.
New bet: The 50-cent minimum Pick Three that Churchill introduced into the state last fall will be part of the Derby and Oaks menu, as will the 50-cent Pick Four. Still no 50-cent tris or 10-cent supers on Derby or Oaks cards.
Missing friends: The meet will be less cheerful without racing official Mary Ellen Hickey Kegel, less lively without horse owner/regulator/attorney for half the backside Bob Stallings, missing one of the few remaining old-timers (that's a compliment) in trainer Dravo Foley and will have one fewer character without Robert "Fibber" Magee, an assistant trainer and exercise rider of note. The four passed away during the Churchill offseason.
Not missed: With 28 horses trying to cram into the Derby's 20 spots, can you imagine the uproar this year if Churchill hadn't canceled its "win-and-you're in" prep, where last year the winner of a minor stakes over Kempton's Polytrack surface in England could have gotten an automatic Derby berth?
by Jennie Rees
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