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Cold Weather and Hot Prospects: Fall Meet Highlights

The victory by the 2-year-old El Kabeir (#5) over Imperia and Eagle (#2) gets Asher's nod as the best race of the Churchill Downs Fall Meet.

The victory by the 2-year-old El Kabeir (#5) over Imperia and Eagle (#2) gets Asher’s nod as the best race of the Churchill Downs Fall Meet.

The just-completed Churchill Downs Fall Meet produced memories of most every type and, as usual, the weather-shortened 24-day session left racing fans looking down the road and wanting a little more.

That’s the special nature of the Fall Meet, a racing session during which the talented 2-year-olds that will become next year’s Kentucky Derby and Oaks candidates finally make it to the track for racing.  The meet has plenty of great races and stakes schedule with something for just about every division, but fall racing is anticipated most because its spotlight is focused primarily on young stars.

As you read this, the countdown to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Longines Kentucky Oaks has slipped below 150 days.  That is not a tremendous amount of time for anyone to get the most precocious and promising members of the juvenile class ready for possible a turn in the brightest spotlights offered by American racing.

Retired Kentucky Oaks-winning jockey Rosie Napravnik talked addressed her fans as Churchill Downs celebrated her career on Saturday, Nov. 15.

Retired Kentucky Oaks-winning jockey Rosie Napravnik talked addressed her fans as Churchill Downs celebrated her career on Saturday, Nov. 15.

Let us proclaim that the 2-year-olds did not fail us.  They generated considerable autumn sizzle.

The Fall Meet’s weather, however, was a hodgepodge of very season, with a heaping helping of early winter in the meet’s next-to-last week that dumped three inches of snow on the track, sent temperatures tumbling into single digits and resulted in a frozen track that prompted the cancellation of racing on Nov. 19 and 20.  The Nov. 19 cancellation was the first winter weather-related cancellation at the track since Nov. 13, 1986, and the back-to-back cancellations on Nov. 19-20 were the first since a frozen track scratched back-to-back programs on Nov. 23-24, 1970.

But weather and racing returned, and the scheduled 26-day meet concluded on Sunday, Nov. 30 after 24 entertaining racing sessions.  One hopes those days were also profitable and enlightening.

Racing will return to Churchill Downs on Saturday, April 25 with its annual “Opening Night” celebration that launches both the Spring Meet and Kentucky Derby Week.  While casting a glance forward to 2015, let’s continue another tradition by looking at 2014’s heroes of the Fall Meet:

Best Race: Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel guided Zayat Stables’ El Kabeir to a narrow win in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club, a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” stop that had the feeling of a race that could be more important than recent renewals of the Run for the Roses prep.  The winner turned in a big effort, but runner-up Imperia and third-place finisher Eagle had the look of very serious players between now and the first Saturday in May.

Honorable mention: The Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving Day in which 19-1 shot Frivolous and jockey Jon Court upset odds-on favorite Don’t Tell Sophia, and the win by the Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old Hoppertunity in the 140th running of the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare.

Jockey of the Meet: Court, who rebounded from a summer and early fall on the sidelines to ride 17 winners and finish sixth among the meet’s leading riders.  Court suffered serious damage to his right hand in a mishap during Kentucky Derby Week, but caught fire during a fall session topped by his upset win in the Falls City, which came just after he celebrated his 54th birthday.

Honorable Mention: Leading rider Corey Lanerie, who has won five consecutive Churchill Downs riding crowns and seven of the last eight.  Up next: a move into the track’s top 10 all-time win leaders.

Trainer of the Meet: Wayne Catalano, who won his first Churchill Downs training title in September and just missed taking another in the Fall Meet, when he finished one win behind meet-leader Dale Romans. Catalano’s West Coast Belle was the meet’s only two-time stakes winner.

Honorable mention: Goes to Romans, who earned his 12th training title at his hometown track, and a pair of high-percentage shippers in Woodbine-based Bryan Lynch and Chicago’s Chris Block.

Owner of the Meet: Gary and Mary West get the nod here after teaming with trainer Catalano for 12 wins, which enabled the self-made billionaire couple to tie 23-time leading owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey for honors as the meet’s top owner.  Each sent 12 horses into the winner’s circle, but the Wests earned those wins in 29 total starts, while the Ramseys required 50 starters.  Accounting for two of their wins was the two-time stakes-winner West Coast Belle.

Honorable mention: Terry Finley’s West Point Thoroughbreds enjoyed strong success with limited numbers by fashioning a record of 4-1-0 from only seven starters.

Best moment: Farewell to Rosie Napravnik on Sat., Nov. 15 – The history-making jockey announced after winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Oct. 31 that she was pregnant and would, at least for now, retire from the saddle.  The two-time Kentucky Oaks winner – the only woman to ride a winner in that 140-year-old race, was visibly touched by an affectionate farewell from fans that included a declaration of “Rosie Napravnik Day” in Louisville from Mayor Greg Fischer.

Best bets to be important horses in 2015 (older division): Grade II Mrs. Revere winner Sparkling Review could develop into a superstar on grass for trainer Ben Colebrook; Hoppertunity and Constitution, 1-3 in the Clark Handicap, were Kentucky Derby 2014 candidates sidelined by pre-Derby injuries.  They should be back near the top of an impressive crop in 2015.

Back to the Future: With an eye toward the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in 2015, here is one man’s list of the Fall Meet’s most impressive early hopes for those races.

  1. Dortmund – He’s unbeaten after shipping from Southern California by Bob Baffert to dominate in a one-mile allowance race on Churchill Downs’ “Stars of Tomorrow II” card.  An imposing physical specimen reminiscent of Baffert’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes-winning behemoth Point Given, he ended up as the 9-1 individual favorite in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.  Just wait until he figures things out.
  2. Imperia – He just missed in the Kentucky Jockey Club (“KJC”) runner-up in his first start on dirt.  As trainer Kiaran McClaughlin said, the Churchill Downs dirt is “the important dirt.”
  3. Eagle – Third in the KJC despite traffic trouble i for owner William S. Farish and trainer Neil Howard.  Will work to develop and deliver on his tremendous upside at Fair Grounds.
  4. No Fault of Mine – Fast-closing runner-up in the Golden Rod and this Chicago-based filly has a pedigree that makes her capable of just about anything.
  5. El Kabeir – New York-based front-running winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club under Calvin Borel was a strong KJC winner, but the 2-3 finishers seem to possess more promise.
  6. A. Rod Again – From the team that brought you 2014 3-year-old star General A Rod.  A possible Derby 141 player for trainer Mike Maker.
  7. Island Town – He impressed in a maiden triumph on “Stars of Tomorrow I” day.  Hard Spun colt has a future for trainer Ian Wilkes.
  8. West Coast Belle – Catalano-trained daughter of the sizzling sire Tapit made the Golden Rod one of two stakes wins during the Fall Meet
  9. Taylor S – Dale Romans’ Medalgia d’Oro filly was impressive in “Stars II” allowance romp.
  10. War Story –Northern Afleet gelding was impressive in his debut for trainer Ron Moquett at 14-1, then purchased and moved to the barn of trainer Tom Amoss. Keep any eye peeled for him in New Orleans.

Photos by REED PALMBER | Churchill Downs