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2012 Spring Race Meet an Exercise in Extremes

July 06,2012

Final thoughts on Churchill Downs’ 138th spring meet that ended Sunday (and almost on Monday by the time it finished):

The 38-date meet ran the gamut from sublime and historic to bizarre and tragic. Everything was extremes.

Start with the weather, which we did with the softball-size hail on opening night. Then came the Oaks Day weather delay and first-ever temporary infield evacuation. The meet ended with the first cancellation for heat in track history coming last Thursday, and the Friday and closing Sunday cards were moved to night along with Saturday’s regularly scheduled Downs After Dark because of the record heat wave.

The weather put longtime track superintendent Butch Lehr, retiring after 30 years at the helm and 45 at Churchill overall, and his veteran track-maintenance crew firmly in the spotlight, illustrating the great (and largely thankless) job they do on a regular basis.

A shoutout goes as well to the track’s gate crew and outriders, who had the same quick turnaround from very late at night to very early in the morning — as did many horsemen and their employees and track employees.

Rosie Napravnik, aboard the well-named Believe You Can, became the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks. The Derby attracted a record attendance and betting while introducing 25-year-old jockey Mario Gutierrez to the world after his victory on I’ll Have Another.

There were excellent editions of Derby Trial (Hierro over Belmont runner-up Paynter), Churchill Downs Stakes (Shackleford over champion Amazombie), Humana Distaff (Groupie Doll over champion Musical Romance) and Stephen Foster (Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek paying $20.80 after winning by a head over Wise Dan).

The jaw-dropping award went to Royal Delta, last year’s 3-year-old filly champion and Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner, taking the Fleur de Lis in a gallop, a full second faster than the Stephen Foster even with jockey Mike Smith wrapping up the last sixteenth-mile.

Guys Reward was the only horse to go 3 for 3, capped by the Grade II Firecracker Handicap.

The allowance races frequently were the quality of graded stakes.

However, much of the daily product was the worst I’ve seen in 28 years of covering Churchill. Not just short fields, but too many short fields of bad horses as the deterioration and dismantling of Kentucky racing continues in spectacular fashion.

I have never seen so many empty stalls throughout a Churchill meet. Much is the function of the intense competition for horses from slots-enriched tracks, but clearly Churchill did not completely replace stables that left completely or sent more horses to New York, especially for quality.

Making it worse, too many stalls were filled with green and fat-bellied 2-year-olds who will be lucky if they race by Labor Day. Management sent blunt letters to trainers saying they hadn’t raced enough to make the track’s per-stall target of starts per horse. It mentioned nothing about all the races in the condition book that didn’t attract enough entries to be used.

Surprising no one, field size dropped from 7.9 last year to 7.7 horses per race.

Even if it’s eroding, Churchill still has a tremendous horse population at the top end. Just look at all the horses who shipped out to win big-money stakes at little tracks benefiting from racinos, such as Fort Larned (Cornhusker), Iowa Derby (Hansen), Sum of the Parts ($400K Red Legend) and Iowa Oaks (Uptown Bertie). Too bad they had to leave town to race for big money.

Purses averaged $549,759 per day, down 1 percent from last year, even with record Derby betting and one midmeet purse hike — which in large part was due to the better races (with their bigger purses) not being used.

A terrific Derby with a record crowd of 163,628 was followed by an unsolved (as far as we know) murder on the backside, with the surreal scene in predawn the next morning of police tape outside two barns a short distance from the Derby winner.

Chilled finished first in a May 18 allowance race by a nose only to be disqualified for attempting to bite his rival Zimmer — though a lot of people thought it was a bad call because Zimmer first came over onto Chilled.

Voodoo Daddy crashed into and got hung up running through a sixteenth-mile of the turf course’s temporary rail, his cuts so severe one nicked an artery in a hind leg, forcing the colt to go to a Lexington clinic to stop the bleeding. Kudos to Churchill’s underappreciated outriders, as Greg Blasi did a great job to get the compression bandage on the colt.

Jockey of the meet: Corey Lanerie easily won his first riding title, 71-42 over Shaun Bridgmohan. His 1.87 daily average wins is the highest strike rate for a spring meet since 1948.

Also notable: Leandro Goncalves finished fourth with 32 wins, one behind Calvin Borel, but with a meet-best four stakes (out of nine mounts). He also leads the Indiana Downs standings with 59 victories.

Trainer of the meet (big stable): Dale Romans won his first title in six years and ninth overall, winning 23 races, including five stakes. If he’s not careful, he’ll get a reputation as a turf trainer, going 10 for 30 on grass.

Trainer of the meet (medium stable): Garry Simms went 7-2-0 in 10 starts, becoming only the fifth trainer to sweep the Debutante (Blueeyesintherein) and Bashford Manor (Circle Unbroken).

Tax stat: 236 horses were claimed for a total of $3,900,500. That’s $234,030 in state sales taxes paid.

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