As the Kentucky Derby 142 countdown clock dwindles into single digits, news that arrived this week about a future event at Churchill Downs produced many smiles beneath the Twin Spires.
The historic track and its hometown are celebrating the news that the Breedersâ€™ Cup Championships would return to the home of the Kentucky Derby for a record-equaling ninth visit in 2018. It will be the first renewal of the Championships in Louisville since 2011 and comes close on the heels of last yearâ€™s successful visit to Lexingtonâ€™s Keeneland Racecourse.
Iâ€™ve had no greater thrill or honor than being part of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs through the years, but Iâ€™ve never spent a better day at the races than a cold November Saturday in 1988. That was the Breedersâ€™ Cupâ€™s first visit to our city, and 71,237 chilled patrons in the damp 50-degree afternoon were dazzled by a spectacular day of competition that, in my mind and heart, remains the greatest one-day racing program of my life.
The unbeaten Personal Ensignâ€™s swan song in that dayâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup Distaff, a race in which she trailed by a seemingly insurmountable margin on the far turn but managed to catch the gallant Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors at the wire, remains my favorite Breedersâ€™ Cup moment at Churchill Downs. Blameâ€™s 2010 Classic win over the unbeaten, much-beloved Zenyatta is close but still a personal number two.
Along with Personal Ensignâ€™s heroics, Breedersâ€™ Cup 1988 produced Alyshebaâ€™s rally in the gloaming â€“ the inadvertent launch of night racing at Churchill Downs â€“ to win the Classic and retire as racingâ€™s richest horse; a dominant win by the French filly Miesque over a soggy turf course and males in the Mile; a 1-2-3 finish led by future Kentucky Oaks winner Open Mind for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won three BC races on the day that also included an upset of favored Easy Goer by Is It True in the Juvenile and a triumph by veteran Gulch in the Sprint; and a dramatic front-running Turf triumph by American long-shot Great Communicator over a cast of international stars.
After that day, itâ€™s a pick â€™em for favorite Breedersâ€™ Cup moments at Churchill Downs. And more could be added in 2018 to the list of unforgettable local finishes beneath the Twin Spires.
As the last of the Derby and Oaks hopes arrive over the next few days, youâ€™ll become familiar with many fascinating individual stories. Listen and watch for these:
Unbeaten Derby favorite â€“ Reddam Racingâ€™s Nyquist is seven-for-seven coming into the Run for the Roses, and a win would make him the first unbeaten favorite to win the Derby since Smarty Jones in 2004. Seattle Slew (1977) is the only unbeaten 3-year-old to sweep the Triple Crown.
Iâ€™ll Have Another (again) â€“ Nyquist runs for the team that won the 2012 Derby with Iâ€™ll Have Another â€“ Reddam Racing, trainer Doug Oâ€™Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez.
Baffert (again) â€“ Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert bids for back-to-back Derby wins for a second time as the man who guided Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah to last yearâ€™s Derby heroics sends out Mor Spirit. Baffert previously won back-to-back Derbys with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998).
One for the Thumb â€“ A Baffert Derby win would be his fifth, placing him in second behind Calumet Farmâ€™s legendary six-time winner Ben A. Jones.
Espinoza (again) â€“ Three-time Kentucky Derby-winner Victor Espinoza could become the first jockey to win three consecutive Derbys. He rides long-shot Whitmore.
Rachelâ€™s Baby â€“ Possible Kentucky Oaks favorite Rachelâ€™s Valentina is the second foal produced by 2009 Horse of the Year and new racing Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra, who won that yearâ€™s Oaks by 20 Â¼ lengths.
Asmussen on a Roll â€“ Trainer Steve Asmussen, named this week to racingâ€™s hall of fame, will saddle Gun Runner and Creator in the Derby and five possible Oaks runners (Terra Promessa, Taxable, Royal Obsession, Nickname and Adore).
First Win Is The Biggest? â€“ Brokerâ€™s Tip (1933) was the last horse to make the Derby his first career victory, but two non-winners â€“ Trojan Nation and Laoban â€“ could make this yearâ€™s field. By the way, the first Triple Crown winner (Sir Barton, 1919) collected his first career win in the Kentucky Derby.
Frequent Flyer â€“ A Derby win by Lani would be the first for both a Japan-based horse and a winner of Dubaiâ€™s UAE Derby.
Maktoum Mountaintop â€“ Should Mohaymen earn the roses on Derby day, he will be the first horse owned by a member of Maktoum family â€“ Dubaiâ€™s ruling family and the countryâ€™s premier racing family â€“ to win the Derby. The colt is owned by the Shadwell Stable of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Will a Saint March In? â€“ Two Derby hopes â€“ Mo Tom and Tomâ€™s Ready â€“ are owned by the family of Tom Benson, owner of the NFLâ€™s New Orleans Saints.
Mo Better? â€“ Reigning 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo was knocked out of the 2011 Derby by illness, but his first crop of babies includes Derby favorite Nyquist and Outwork, the latter owned and bred by Uncle Moâ€™s owner Mike Repole.
Power of Wayne â€“ Former assistants to Hall of Famer and four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle horses in the 2016 Derby, include Todd Pletcher, winner of the 2010 running with Super Saver; and Kiaran McLaughlin and Dallas Stewart, each looking for their first Derby success.
Key Kentucky Jockey Club â€“ Novemberâ€™s running of Churchill Downsâ€™ Kentucky Jockey Club is likely to produce four Derby starters in Mor Spirit, Gun Runner, Mo Tom and Tomâ€™s Ready. Super Saver and Real Quiet are the most recent KJC horses to return the following spring to win the roses.
Name Game â€“ She will bid for the Oaks rather than the Derby, but how could one avoid a tear in the eye at the mere mention of the name Weep No More? VT