The kick-off of the holiday season with the celebration of Thanksgiving stirs emotions in just about everyone, but there are two clear reasons that the coming weekend will produce a smile.
Thanksgiving is clearly one of the most family-centered holidays, and that makes it special for me as a product of a sprawling Catholic family with lots of branches and faces.
But Thanksgiving and the entire weekend are special at Churchill Downs, where Iâ€™ve spent most of my time during this holiday period since I officially joined the racetrack family in early 1997.
Thanksgiving Day is a fabulous day at the track when racing fans of all types enjoy the nearly 9,000 dinners with all the trimmings served beneath the Twin Spires that day. Some families have made Churchill Downs a part of their Thanksgiving celebration for generations, which puts this day pretty close to Kentucky Derby and Oaks Days on my list of the most special days of the year at my workplace.
But along with time with friends and the good feelings generated by the warmth of the weekend, the racing is terrific, and the on-track performances place an exclamation point on the racing year, leaving fans of every level of experience waiting for more when the stables, horses and jockeys come back to town in late April for Kentucky Derby and Oaks Week.
On a personal level, Iâ€™m as excited about the races this weekend as most any year I can remember.Â Thanksgiving Day is headed by the Falls City Handicap for older fillies and mares, Black Friday again has the venerable Clark Handicap as its feature, and Saturday will have us looking to Spring as the â€œStars of Tomorrow IIâ€ program is devoted exclusively to 2-year-olds who could emerge as Kentucky Derby and Oaks contenders just over five months down the road.
On top of that, the first pool of Kentucky Derby Future Wager for Derby 141 runs Friday-through-Sunday, providing an opportunity to earn bragging rights and a handsome mutual payout for betting on the young star that ends up wearing the roses on the First Saturday in May.
But the highlight for me is the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare, a race that is as old as the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, and like those races, has been run each year without interruption since the first Churchill Downs racing meet in 1875.Â This yearâ€™s running has a high bar to clear after last yearâ€™s showdown between the 3-year-old Will Take Charge and future Hall of Famer Game On Due.Â Will Take Charge rallied in the last jump to win by a nose for ageless Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and nailed down the Eclipse Award that recognized the winner as 3-year-old champion.
The Clarkâ€™s spot on the calendar occasionally provides the race with championship implications, but more often the 1 1/8-mile race for older horses is indicator of things to come.
St. Liam won the race in 2004 and would be named Horse of the Year the following year. The 3-year-old Blame won the Clark in 2009 and returned the following year to hand previously unbeaten Zenyatta her only loss in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic and earned the Eclipse Award for champion older horse. And in 2011, a rising star named Wise Dan won the Clark before returning to the grass to earn back-to-back Horse of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013.
This yearâ€™s Clark could well be the latter kind of Clark, and two horses that could follow in the footsteps of aforementioned champions are Twin Creek Racing Stable and WinStar Farmâ€™s Constitution and Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitmanâ€™s Hoppertunity.
Both Constitution and Hoppertunity were on-track to run in the Kentucky Derby won by California Chrome, but both were sidelined by injury.
Constitution, winner of the Grade I Florida Derby, was unbeaten when he was injured and recently finished fourth in an allowance race for trainer Todd Pletcher that was his return to racing. Hoppertunity won the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn and second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby, finished second in a Santa Anita allowance race for Bob Baffert in his return to racing.
Both are high quality members of a strong crop of 3-year-olds and each will be looking to use the Clark as a springboard to success in their 4-year-old season.
Saturdayâ€™s race offers a good opportunity for those horses to announce that they will forces to be reckoned with in 2015.
Thursdayâ€™s Falls City, which also dates to the first racing meet in 1875, will be run for the 99th time and its biggest star is the kind of horse that fuels dreams of fans, trainers and owners. Donâ€™t Tell Sophia was purchased at Keenelandâ€™s 2009 September Sale for $1,000 by trainer and co-owner Phil Sims and this year she has emerged as a star. Donâ€™t Tell Sophia won Keenelandâ€™s Grade I Juddmonte Spinster and was a flying second to Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.
Donâ€™t Tell Sophia will attempt to end her season on a high note, but must turn back Molly Morgan â€“ winner of Churchill Downsâ€™ Grade II Chilukki and Fleur De Lis for hometown trainer Dale Romans â€“ and eight other rivals.
Saturdayâ€™s â€œStars of Tomorrow IIâ€ races are headed by the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club and Grade II Golden Rod for fillies are stops on their respective â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ and Road to the Kentucky Oaksâ€ points series. Both races are run at 1 1/16 miles.
The Kentucky Jockey Club appears primed to attract a full gate of promising 2-year-olds whose connections have an eye on next springâ€™s Run for the Roses.
Among the youngsters Iâ€™m most excited to see in that race are the Neil Howard-trained Eagle, Kenny McPeekâ€™s Jumpin Frac Flash, three-time Kentucky Derby-winner Bob Baffertâ€™s California shipper Lord Nelson, trainer Steve Asmussenâ€™s Iroquois Stakes winner Lucky Player and Imperia, who is set to make his first start on dirt for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Fillies looking to make the next step in the Golden Rod that have caught my eye include the Dale Romans-trained Pocahontas Stakes winner Cristinaâ€™s Journey, McPeekâ€™s Kathmanblu and the Wayne Catalano-trained West Coast Belle.
The stakes races will be fun on Saturday, but you could be just as likely to see future Derby or Oaks contender on the races in on the â€œStars of Tomorrowâ€ undercard.
A field of 23 wagering interests for the opening pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager was released on Tuesday and wagering in the three-day pool opens on Friday and concludes at the conclusion of Sundayâ€™s closing day of Fall Meet racing at Churchill Downs.Â Itâ€™s just the second Derby Futures pool to be conducted over Thanksgiving Weekend, and the roster of wagering interests and free past performance information on those horses is available at www.KentuckyDerby.com.
Enjoy the moments of the Thanksgiving celebration and the closing week of the Fall Meet at Churchill Downs.Â But itâ€™s definitely a good think to look down the road as, at the end of Sundayâ€™s final program of the meet, only 153 days will remain until Kentucky Derby 141.
Photos by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs