The Spring Meet at Churchill Downs is always best viewed in the rear-view mirror because of a somewhat odd calendar and structure.
Most race tracks have an opportunity to build up to their big events, but any Spring Meet at Churchill Downs hits the ground in a full-out sprint, as the meet begins with the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, the biggest weekend in American racing.
This year, after a spectacular six days of racing and entertainment that stretched from Opening Night to Derby Day, 32 days of racing remained in spring season beneath the Twin Spires once the big show was over. A lot of good things can happen in that span of time, and many wonderful things did occur during those remaining days.
The meet reaches its all-too-rapid conclusion with the Downs After Dark night racing session on Saturday, July 2.
Expect strong and large fields of horses to be entered over those three days. Business always seems to get busier at the entry box when owners and trainers look at the calendar and realize their last chance to run their horses has arrived. Also, more 2-year-olds â€“ the Derby and Oaks hopes of 2017 â€“ emerge in those final races after prepping for debuts in the meetâ€™s early weeks.
Acknowledging that some memorable efforts are likely during the meetâ€™s final three days â€“ especially in the stakes races for 2-year-olds, the Grade III Bashford Manor and the Debutante, on the meetâ€™s closing night â€“ hereâ€™s a look at some of the highlights as the 2016 Spring Meet nears its conclusion.
Top Jockey: A dominant meet-long performance by Corey Lanerie will provide him with an 11th leading jockey title in the trackâ€™s last 12 meets. The Louisiana native has worked hard, ridden more horses than any other member of the strong Churchill Downs riding colony and held a 51-38 lead over Julien Leparoux in total wins with three days remaining in the Spring Meet. Itâ€™s sometimes easy to overlook Lanerieâ€™s everyday excellence, but he has dominated the spring of 2016 at Churchill Downs. Lanerie deserves a special nod for turning back a talented group of contemporaries, several of whom stepped up the pressure by recording their best meet-long performances in years.
Honorable mention: Leparoux was strong from Opening Night on and deserves special congratulations for traveling to Englandâ€™s famed Royal Ascot Meet to guide Tepin to a historic triumph in the Group One Queen Anne Stakes. A resurgent Robby Albarado, Brian Hernandez Jr. and rising star Florent Geroux made up a strong top five in the jockeys room that was as deep in talent as it has been in years.
Missed: Three-time Kentucky Derby-winner Calvin Borel, the folk hero who retired suddenly prior to the meet. We have not been able to say goodbye to Calvin, and hereâ€™s hoping that one day, weâ€™ll be able to offer a proper farewell and tell him how much fans appreciated his work here through the years.
Top Trainer: Mike Maker and Mark Casse are tied at 18 wins heading into the meetâ€™s final three days, but Casse gets the nod as the meetâ€™s top trainer regardless of which barn finishes on top. Under the guidance of Norman Casse, the trainerâ€™s son and top assistant, the Casse barn has been a study in sustained excellence since Derby Week. The stable showcased international star Tepin on Derby Day in a second consecutive Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile (Grade II) win and won the Grade III Edgewood on grass with Catch A Glimpse, its next female grass superstar who went on to beat 3-year-old males in her next outing. All the while, the Casse team has rolled out one promising runner after another during the meet while winning more than 30 percent of its races and finishing in-the-money with nearly 60 percent of its starters.
Special Mention: The top streak by any of the human participants in the Spring Meet is last weekâ€™s string of five consecutive victories by horses trained by veteran Mike Tomlinson. Those who had the faith to follow Tomlinson were rewarded handsomely at the window as the string included a three-win Twilight Thursday on June 23 with Jersey Street ($13.40), Scatnap ($10.40) and For Goodness Sake ($7), followed by Leonardo Da Vinci ($10.20) the following day and stable favorite Greengrassofwyoming ($12.20) on Sunday. Tomlinson will attempt to extend his local string of wins with a pair of starters on Friday, July 1.
Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey are in good shape to collect their unprecedented 26th leading owner title at Churchill Downs as their spring victory total stands at 12 â€“ a five-win edge over their nearest competitor â€“ with three days of racing to go.
But a special nod goes to the ownership team of trainer William â€œBuffâ€ Bradley and Carl Hurst, whose horses were 4-0-1 in six races heading into the meetâ€™s final week. Two of those wins were provided by The Player, a 3-year-old son of Street Hero that was bred by the duo in partnership with the late Fred Bradley, the trainerâ€™s father who died on May 20 at the age of 85.
Along with his work as an owner and breeder, Fred Bradley was an Air Force veteran who later served as an attorney and in elected offices that included a run as a respected member of the Kentucky Senate.
Fred Bradleyâ€™s accomplishments were significant and wide-ranging, but among his personal highlights was the breeding of champion Groupie Doll, a Breedersâ€™ Cup-winner, and $2 million earner and Grade I-winner Brass Hat on his Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort.
The Player has the looks of a horse with a significant future. Regardless of what happens in the final three days of racing in the Spring Meet at Churchill Downs, the promise displayed by the colt will endure as tribute to the life and work of Fred Bradley. There are many people who are pulling for that 3-year-old colt to emerge as something special.
Next week, weâ€™ll take look at memorable equine performances and rising 2-year-old stars that emerged during the 38 days of spring racing at Churchill Downs. VT