By Igor Guryaskin
Jill Byrne, Churchill Downsâ€™ in-house racing analyst and on-air communications director leaned over the glistening white rail next to the winnerâ€™s enclosure opposite the finish line. In her last six years as the trackâ€™s on-air announcer sheâ€™s watched every single race â€“ a myriad of drama, joy, exasperation and elation.
Just like every one of those races, she watched intently as Biker Boy, in a rather slow and pedestrian one minute and thirty five seconds, ran a mile on the muddy, moist dirt below the baking midday sun to fend off six others and win the dayâ€™s first race.
There was seemingly nothing remarkable for Byrne to catalogue in her encyclopedic equine library of neurons and receptors.
Biker Boy, a forgettable horse who won a small and insignificant race, will be remembered, not because he beat out Smarten Destiny and six others for a purse of $18,200, butÂ because on Friday, September 6, he was the winner of the first ever race in Churchill Downsâ€™ 139 year history to be held as part of a third scheduled meeting in its racing year.
Races in the month of September connect the traditional and previously unabridged gap between the Spring and Fall meets.
Twelve meets have been scheduled in the month, with increased prize money, additional graded stakes races as well as a slew of entertainment options, all with the express aim of driving foot traffic to the storied track as well as keeping stables full during a period in which trainers usually pack up and move out to pastures new and more profitable, sometimes never to return.
â€œIâ€™ll remember this race,â€ remarked Byrne. â€œYou usually remember your first Kentucky Derby, or the higher graded stakes races, but just like our first race under the lights here, Iâ€™ll remember a race like this as our first one in September.â€
â€œWe saw that in the spring, if trainers came to Churchill Downs in the spring of the year they would be able to be here the full year,â€ explains Kevin Flanery, President of Churchill Downs Racetrack. â€œThey [trainers] can train here during the summer and spend time here in September and November and theyâ€™d race at Keeneland as well.â€
The surest way that Flanery and his team saw of attracting trainers and jockeys to Churchill Downs was offering a sizeable increase in prize money. While averaging lower than the meets in the spring and the fall, the new dates, are still more than quadruple the booty that Turf Park was offering during their own September dates â€“ the same ones that have now been assigned to the Louisville track, a move that has seen stables fill close to capacity and riders more excited.
â€œOur average daily prize money is going to be $407,000 a day,â€ explains Darren Rogers, Senior Director of Communications and Media. â€œThis is important for horsemen racing on a day-in and day-out basis here because if we can stage some big events as well as fill some high profile stakes races weâ€™ll do that.â€
While Friday may have been historic yet modestly attended, the hope over the weekend was to recreate the atmosphere of the famed â€œDowns After Darkâ€ meets of October and November. In this vein, last Saturday the track staged â€œCollege Rivalry Nightâ€ using college football as the main attraction. Fans were asked which college team they supported and were encouraged to wear college colors proudly with the top three schools earning scholarships of $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000. As for next week, with the Governorâ€™s Cup being staged in Lexington, Churchill Downs will try to create a tailgating atmosphere by projecting the game between University of Louisville and University of Kentucky on a giant screen with added tailgating activities, as well as live music and attractions geared towards the whole family, all taking place in the 30,000 square foot paddock plaza.
â€œItâ€™s about embracing what people are passionate about this time of year, which is football,â€ explains Flanery. â€œThe football game is in the morning so people can come to watch the game here and we hope that people will make their way over in the afternoon.â€
While success may prove to be slow for the team at Churchill Downs, the gamble of scheduling September races seems to be one that was taken with a long-view aimed at getting people used to racing meets in September as much as theyâ€™re accustomed to seeing college football.
â€œWe are not taking a one-and-done approach,â€ explains Rogers who confirmed that the track has already applied for dates for the following year regardless of how this year fares. â€œWe think this makes sense because it will help stabilize the Kentucky circuit. Itâ€™s beneficial to the stateâ€™s horse industry, too, with some trainers already keeping their base of operations here with us. And there has already been some great feedback.â€
One trainer clearly delighted by the extended schedule is Ron Moquett, trainer to Biker Boy as well as a number of horses on the backside.
â€œYou start out training horses hoping to do it at places like Churchill Downs,â€ explains Moquett. â€œSo when they give you extra time to train here itâ€™s brilliant. Iâ€™m happy we can stay at our barn and not have to ship out. In the end we [trainers] have to win good races at good parks. To stay in the game, you have to produce. When you win the race, you provide money for the owners, and as long as you do that Iâ€™m tickled to death.â€
One new event on the inaugural schedule is the $175,000 Homecoming Classic on Sept. 28. In addition to the races that start the series ofÂ â€œRoad to Kentucky Derbyâ€ and â€œRoad to Kentucky Oaksâ€, races that will hopefully draw in the crowds given their significance, will run that day as well.
â€œWe understand that when you do something new you have to give people a reason to be here and become aware of it,â€ concludes Flanery. â€œBut weâ€™re also confident that from a racing standpoint this can become very attractive. In the end itâ€™s about doing something new and innovative and making a little bit of history.â€
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-TribuneÂ