The Best of the Rest of the Spring Meet

When the curtain dropped on Churchill Downs’ 2015 Spring Meet just before midnight last Saturday, there were a pair of lingering images from the 38-day racing session in this (clearly biased) corner: American Pharoah and smiles.

The former was directly connected to the creation of many of the latter, but one of those smiles was on my face. It was not a perfect meet, but it was a good step forward from the same 38-day meet in 2014 and left the track and its team with work to do – but also much to build on.

Any discussion of the meet must start with American Pharoah, Zayat Stables’ Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner who, over the next five weeks, became the first 3-year-old Thoroughbred in 37 years to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and sweep the Triple Crown. In doing so, American Pharoah became an American sports and pop culture star and a trending, hash-tagged racing hero.

The Kentucky Derby victory by American Pharoah before a record 170,513 fans that launched his Triple Crown run packed a bit more suspense than his admirers had expected, but it lingers as the Spring Meet’s defining moment. The joy surrounding American Pharoah during the meet was infectious, but there were many wonderful moments that did not involve the Triple Crown winner. Here is a list of other outstanding performances and memories.

RACE OF THE MEET

Grade I Humana Distaff: Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay’s Dame Dorothy, knocked out of Kentucky Oaks consideration the previous spring by injury, made it to Churchill Downs on the first weekend in May and outlasted reigning Filly & Mare Sprint champion Judy the Beauty and long shot Moonlit Stroll to win by a neck in a heart-pounding finish.

BEST MILESTONE

Kentucky racing and breeding legend Claiborne Farm climbed into a tie with Calumet Farm, another Bluegrass icon, for most wins in stakes races when the 6-year-old gelding Departing won the Firecracker (Grade II) on June 27’s closing night program. Claiborne and Calumet are tied at 33 stakes wins. It must be said that only one of Claiborne’s wins was a Kentucky Derby, while Calumet won eight renewals of the Run for the Roses.  But a tie is a tie.

TOP JOCKEY

This honor is a reflection of the meet’s leading jockey race in which Corey Lanerie won his eighth riding crown in Churchill Downs’ last nine meets, but it took a victory in the meet’s final race to enable Lanerie to edge Julien Leparoux, a nine-time local riding champ, by a margin of 40-39. While Lanerie was a deserving meet leader, this corner’s Top Jockey honor goes to Leparoux, who nearly won the title despite riding 60 fewer mounts than Lanerie.

TOP TRAINER

Mike Maker (23 wins) had the most victories on the meet, but the honor here is a split between Mark Casse (12-10-10 in 53 races) and Ian Wilkes (16-9-8 in 66 races). Casse won the Grade I Stephen Foster with Noble Bird and took Derby Day’s Distaff Turf Mile (GII) with Tepin. Wilkes was solid throughout and won stakes races with improving stars Island Town and Viva Majorca.

TOP OWNER

Kudos to Ken and Sarah Ramsey, whose 17 winners from 48 starters led all owners, but the Asher honor goes to Ahmed Zayat, who finally has a Kentucky Derby winner’s trophy of his own after three runner-up finishes. Zayat won only three of 19 races on the meet, but his joy over his Derby victory by American Pharoah and his generosity with the colt while on the road was remarkable.

TOP TEAM

Owner-breeder Brereton Jones and trainer Larry Jones get this honor after sending Lovely Maria into the Kentucky Oaks winner’s circle before a record 123,763. It was the third Oaks victory for the owner-trainer combo since 2008.

GETTING BETTER

The average field that competed in a Spring Meet race consisted of 7.79 horses, an increase of 6.9 percent from last spring’s average of 7.29.

FUTURE STARS

Fewer 2-year-olds are showing up in the entry box during recent Spring Meets, but the meets in September and November will have races packed with potential stars. My view of the most promising juveniles of the Spring Meet includes three:

• Taxable – The Steve Asmussen-trained daughter of Tapit out of a half-sister to Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly scored a dominant victory at the closing week maiden race. Her win came around the same time of year that Asmussen’s Untapable made her 2013 debut – and she won the Kentucky Oaks the following spring.

• Cosmic Evolution – Good-looking daughter of Proud Citizen took a huge lead from a loss in her debut to a win in the Debutante Stakes in her second start. I’m guessing trainer Lon Wiggins’ phone has been ringing non-stop with purchase offers.

• He’s Comin In Hot – The Bashford Manor winner was the fastest 2-year-old of the Spring Meet.  He’s not the type to be a Kentucky Derby winner next spring, but has the potential to place in some nice races in the summer and fall for trainer Bret Calhoun. VT