There are many things that make a visit to Keeneland for the opening weekend of its 17-day Fall Meet, a special autumn event in Kentucky.
There is, of course, the usually pleasant weather and the autumn color. The meet serves as a lovely transition from summer to a new season, and racing at the Lexington track is always a social event and the track is packed on its best weather days.
But the primary lure of a fall trip to Keeneland remains the high-quality Thoroughbreds that will be on the track.Â Nine stakes races â€“ five of them Grade I events â€“ are set for the meetâ€™s opening weekend and many horses will be prepping for the Breedersâ€™ Cup World Championships on the first weekend in November at Santa Anita.
The main attraction during the trackâ€™s â€œFall Stars Weekendâ€ is a major contender to become Americaâ€™s â€œHorse of the Year.â€ Morton Finkâ€™s Wise Dan, a serious contender for both the Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile on turf and the $5 million Classic on the main track, is set for a Saturday run. Â Trainer Charlie Lopresti told Daily Racing Form on Tuesday that his 5-year-old gelding would run in the Grade I, $750,000 Shadwell Mile on turf.
It is fitting that horse that could be the meetâ€™s biggest star will run in its richest fall race. Wise Dan has won five of his last six races, with his only setback being a narrow loss on dirt to Ron the Greek in Churchill Downsâ€™ Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap in June.Â Since that setback, the winner of last fallâ€™s Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs has cruised to turf wins in the Grade II Fourstardave at Saratoga and the Grade I Woodbine Mile at Torontoâ€™s Woodbine Race Course.
While his versatile star would be likely be either the favorite or among the favorites in either the Mile or the Classic, Lopresti said the Mile is the current target.
Sizzle was added to the prospective Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile field on Tuesday when Team Valor International announced that Animal Kingdom, winner of the 2010 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, would likely return from a long stay on the sidelines in that race. The Graham Motion-trainee was last seen winning a turf allowance at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 18 in his only start of the year.Â He was pointing to the $10 million Dubai World Cup until a stress fracture knocked him out of training.
â€œComing off the layoff, the Mile just seems very logical for him,â€ Motion said. â€œHe certainly has the turn of foot to handle it. The timing is right for his schedule coming back, and the caliber of horse that he is, you’re not going to look for a nice, easy spotâ€
Another Kentucky-based star set to run on Keenelandâ€™s opening weekend is Groupie Doll, the multiple Grade I winner owned by a partnership headed by former Kentucky State Senator Fred Bradley and his son, Buff, the fillyâ€™s trainer.
The possible favorite for the Breedersâ€™ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint is headed for the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes on Saturday.
Like Wise Dan, Groupie Doll is notable for talent, speed and versatility. She is a Grade I winner on dirt in Churchill Downsâ€™ Humana Distaff and over Keenelandâ€™s synthetic surface in the Grade I Madison.
Groupie Doll is the latest chapter in the marvelous ongoing story of the Bradley Family. Fred Bradleyâ€™s farm near Frankfort, Ky. produced the unlikely millionaire Grade I winner Brass Hat a few years back, and that star gelding became a fan favorite on the Kentucky racing circuit.
Brass Hat now lives in comfort on the Bradley Farm, which has now produced the even-more accomplished Groupie Doll.Â If all goes well in the TCA, which is part of the Breedersâ€™ Cupâ€™s â€œWin and Youâ€™re Inâ€ series of prep races, sheâ€™ll become the Bradleysâ€™ first runner in the event.
Last weekâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup preps in New York and California produced big results for Hall of Fame trainers Bill Mott and Bob Baffert.
Mott, who won last yearâ€™s Classic with Drosselmeyer and Ladiesâ€™ Classic with Royal Delta at Churchill Downs, put himself in prime position to repeat in both races.Â Royal Delta dominated a good field in Belmont Parkâ€™s Beldame and looms as the possible favorite for the Ladies Classic, which continues to loom as the most intriguing race of the two-day Breedersâ€™ Cup Weekend.Â Mott also won the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup with Flat Out, the beaten favorite in last fallâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Mott, Churchill Downsâ€™ all-time win leader, could run three horses â€“ Flat Out, Ron the Greek and To Honor and Serve â€“ in this yearâ€™s Classic.Â But thereâ€™s a chorus of racing fans â€“ this voice being a part of it â€“ that believes the filly Royal Delta has a better chance to win that wide open race that any member of that trio.
This much is odds-on about Royal Delta and Mottâ€™s plans for her: whatever he does will be in the best interest of his horse, who could return to run next year at five.
Baffert won a trio of Grade I races at Santa Anita last Saturday, topped by a victory by 2011 Classic runner-up Game On Dude in a Grade I race now named the Awesome Again, the winner of the a Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 1998 that truly lived up to its name.Â Game On Dude is a son of Awesome Again and the 5-year-old gelding is set for another run in the wide-open Classic.
The three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, who has seen 3-year-old stars Bodemeister and Paynter head to the sidelines with injury and illness this year, also notched Grade I wins in 2-year-old races by the filly Executiveprivelege and the colt Power Broker.
Tom Proctor, another trainer based at Churchill Downs most of the year, won the Rodeo Stakes with Marketing Mix, a talented 4-year-old filly who is expected to run in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
Looking ahead to the Churchill Downs Fall Meet now less than a month away, the jockey colony will include Kentucky Oaks-winning Rosie Napravnik. The Daily Racing Formâ€™s David Grening reported that Napravnik would ride at the Keeneland meet and stay in Kentucky to ride beneath the Twin Spires. Napravnik will head to Fair Grounds in New Orleans when the New Orleans meet opens on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22.Â She has won the last two riding crowns at that meet.
A familiar face returning to Kentucky for the fall is that of Julien Leparoux, who will ride at the Keeneland meet and probably hang around for the Churchill Downs meet.Â The 29-year-old Leparoux has earned â€œleading riderâ€ honors at the last four Keeneland meets. Leparoux has won nine Churchill Downs riding crowns, including a string of five consecutive Fall Meet titles.
Photos by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs