The curtain dropped on racing at Churchill Downs, albeit briefly,
when the Spring Meet concluded a 38-day run on Saturday, July 5 and did so in a way that has become very familiar to fans of racing at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
While bidding farewell to the Spring Meet, lovers of Thoroughbred racing in Kentucky and across the nation were assessing strong performances by emerging 2-year-old stars. They wondered how these horses would develop and mature in the summer and autumn months and whether the youngsters might possess the right stuff that could put them in the spotlight next spring when the curtain rises on the 2017 Spring Meet and the 143rd consecutive runnings of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI).
While it doesnâ€™t happen frequently, horses that debut in the Spring Meet do return to do big things the following spring. James Tafelâ€™s Street Sense and Michael Tabor and Derrick Smithâ€™s Rags to Riches each made their racing debuts at Churchill Downs late in the Spring Meet of 2008.
The Carl Nafzger-trained Street Sense was beaten four lengths in his six-furlong debut on July 9 but would return to Churchill Downs in the fall to win the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile by 10 lengths and the following spring became the first of only two horses to follow a win in the Juvenile with a victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Rags to Riches finished fourth against nine rivals in her 5 1/2-furlong debut a few weeks earlier, but the Todd Pletcher-trained daughter of A.P. Indy returned in the spring to easily win the Kentucky Oaks. Five weeks later, she became the first filly in more than a century to win the Belmont Stakes when she turned back eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and Street Sense to win the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
Summer Squall won a pair of stakes races at Churchill Downs for trainer Neil Howard at 2, returned as a 3-year-old to finish second to Unbridled in the Kentucky Derby and turned the tables on that rival to win the Preakness, the Triple Crownâ€™s second jewel.
Timber County finished sixth in his stakes debut beneath the Twin Spires in the 1994 Bashford Manor, but by yearâ€™s end would be a 2-year-old champion for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. He finished third to stablemate Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Derby but won the Preakness.
When assessing the top juvenile stars of the just-concluded Spring Meet, donâ€™t pencil them in for Triple Crown stardom next spring. But donâ€™t rule them out either, for many have the pedigrees and the connections to carry them a long way â€“ if they can find some luck along the way.
Following is a list of 10 colts and fillies that turned heads in the 2016 Spring Meet. The roster is a good list of â€œhorses to watchâ€ for next yearâ€™s Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown races. The future stars are ranked in order of how they impressed your writer.
Joseph Suttonâ€™s son of Horse of the Year Mineshaft pressed a hot pace under Brian Hernandez before he blew away a promising roster of opponents in a 6 3/4-length victory in his June 30 debut for trainer Eddie Kenneally. His style was dazzling, and he completed six furlongs in a scorching 1:09.20, but just as memorable is the fact that his backers were rewarded by 6-1 odds. Look for one of the best-kept secrets in recent years at Churchill Downs to run next at Saratoga.
2. Classic Empire
John C. Oxleyâ€™s son of Pionnerof the Nile (sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah) closed swiftly in the stretch to overhaul heavily favorited Recruiting Ready and win the Bashford Manor (GIII) for trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux. It was a top effort despite two months between debut and the stakes run, and he has overcome poor starts to win each of his races. Thereâ€™s plenty of room to improve, and he is really good now.
3. Recruiting Ready
Owned by the Sagamore Farm of Under Armourâ€™s Kevin Plank, the Maryland-based Algorithms colt did a lot of things well in his runner-up finish in the Bashford Manor. He got out of the gate swiftly â€“ a little too swiftly, perhaps â€“ and opened a big lead in mid-stretch but was run down late after appearing to lose a bit of focus. Still, he was nine-lengths clear of the third-place finisher in a fast time and should improve significantly from the experience.
4. Made Me Shiver
Her sire â€“ McCleanâ€™s Music, was brilliant in his lone career start, and if the debut performance of this Steve Asmussen-trained filly from his first crop is any indication, weâ€™ll be hearing the first-year stallionâ€™s name a lot this year. Made Me Shiver pulled away easily in that race to win by 5 3/4 lengths and she is another reason to look forward to the 2-year-old races at Saratoga. Sheâ€™s fast, but her sire was by Distorted Humor so thereâ€™s plenty of reason to think sheâ€™ll run long and the sireâ€™s offspring love the Churchill Downs track.
A fast-closing third after a horrible start in his racing debut in the Kentucky Juvenile during Derby Week, the Casse-trained son of first-year sire Stay Thirsty rolled easily in his next outing and is one of a barnful of promising juveniles in the Team Casse barn.
6. Pretty City Dancer
John Oxleyâ€™s Tapit filly should not be her best at six furlongs but was plenty impressive in her stretch-running victory in the Bashford Manor in which she finished 3 1/4 lengths clear of promising fillies who had run in New York and Texas. Sheâ€™s a filly that needs to be more alert at the gate but should improve as distances grow longer.
Winchell Thoroughbredsâ€™ colt from the first crop of Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile (GI) winner Tapizar impressed in a front-running 4 1/2-length victory in his June 16 premiere for trainer Steve Asmussen. Heâ€™s another juvenile-to-watch at Saratoga.
8. Tip Tap Tapizar
A distant third in the Bashford Manor in his second career start, the Asmussen trainee ran well behind the two brilliant performers in front of him. Itâ€™s not clear if heâ€™s a top-notch prospect, but heâ€™s got a solid future.
How many trainers aside from Wesley Ward could get a Tapit filly to win with front-running speed at 4 1/2 and five furlongs? The winner of Churchill Downsâ€™ Kentucky Juvenile finished ninth in her third outing in the Group 2 Coventry on the grass at Royal Ascot, but we donâ€™t hold that international journey against her.
10. Ever So Clever
The Asmussen-trained daughter of distance-loving Medaglia dâ€™Oro broke slowly but won by 7 1/4-lenghts in her six-furlong July 1 debut at Churchill Downs. That should be enough to get your attention.
A Fond Farewell
With that group of horses to watch over the next few weeks, I regret to say that this will be my final regular column for The Voice-Tribune. My thanks to those â€“ headed by my longtime friend Earl Cox â€“ who suggested many years ago this might be a good idea.
The weekly visits have been fun, and I hope theyâ€™ve been enjoyable to readers as well. But my Churchill Downs schedule grows more hectic, and something had to give.
Thanks to all who worked with me at The Voice-Tribune through countless photo-finishes at deadline time, and thanks to each of you for saddling-up for these weekly rides. I hope youâ€™ve had some fun along the way.
Meanwhile, the search for winners goes on. In the words of the late, great Mike Barry, Iâ€™ll offer a fond wish for everyone: â€œI hope I break even. I need the money.â€ VT