September Meet Wraps, Fall Frenzy Looms

The runaway victory by Frivolous and jockey Jon Court in the Locust Grove earns John Asher's pick for best Horse of the September meet. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

The runaway victory by Frivolous and jockey Jon Court in the Locust Grove earns John Asher’s pick for best Horse of the September meet. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

If we have learned anything about the relatively new experience of September racing at Churchill Downs, it sounds something like this adage: “Don’t blink, you’ll miss something.”

There were some schedule changes in the third year of September racing beneath the Twin Spires. The 12-date schedule of the first two years was reduced by one, and the overall meet footprint was reduced to three weeks rather than four.

Both changes were made to accommodate adjustments required in the Keeneland schedule for the Lexington track’s first job of hosting the Breeders’ Cup Championships October 30-31.

But both on-track and off-track, business was solid, and strong performances by equine and human stars on the track pointed to ongoing interest in the meet. That is especially true for horsemen who want a presence for their stables in Kentucky throughout the year.

Although Churchill Downs offered 109 races compared to 122 offered with an additional September date a year ago, daily purses rose by nearly two percent, and the average purse for a race during the 11-day 2015 session climbed nearly 4.5 percent to $33,082.

Eight wins and a tie for third in the race for "leading jockey" made Marcelino Pedroza the pick as top jockey of the September Meet.. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

Eight wins and a tie for third in the race for “leading jockey” made Marcelino Pedroza the pick as top jockey of the September Meet.. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

The average purse remains a good bit lower than what is offered during Churchill Downs’ Spring Meet and the upcoming Fall session, but that was part of the deal when the track answered a call by owners and trainers to seek September dates.

The new meet would be offered as long as purses for the track’s spring and fall session were not harmed.

That pledge held true in 2015, and slow growth for the September session continued. As a bonus, the size of the average race field weathered local and out-of-state competition for horses to finish at 7.96 horses, a slight increase from the 7.70 average from a year earlier.

Inside the just-completed 11-day meet were plenty of interesting performances, for which we’ll offer accolades now:

Jockey of the Meet: Corey Lanerie shook off an 0-for-Saratoga summer by earning “leading rider” honors in September and his ninth Churchill Downs riding crown. But my salute for rider of the meet goes to Marcelino Pedroza. He collected eight wins to finish in a three-way tie for third with Jon Court and Julien Leparoux. He finished 1-2-3 in 49 percent of his races, a tick higher than Lanerie’s in-the-money percentage with 22 additional mounts.

Trainer of the Meet: Steve Asmussen and Dale Romans, 2-3 behind Bill Mott in all-time wins at Churchill Downs, tied for the September crown with six wins apiece, but my trainer of the meet honor goes to rising star Brendan Walsh. He finished with a 3-2-0 record from only nine starters that included a closing weekend stakes triumph by Saham in the $100,000, Grade III Jefferson Cup.

Owner of the Meet: Texan Tom Durant won his first Churchill Downs “leading owner” crown from afar with a 3-1-0 record in four starts. He turned back all-time local win leaders and 24-time leading owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who snagged two wins while starting 13 more horses than Durant.

Horse of the Meet: The vote here goes to G. Watts Humphrey’s homebred Frivolous, who romped over a solid fiend in the listed Locust Grove under jockey Jon Court for trainer Victoria Oliver, the owner’s daughter. The old gray mare keeps getting better and better, and Frivolous added the Locust Grove to Grade II stakes wins in the Falls City and Fleur De Lis at Churchill Downs since the end of November.

Frivolous is in career-best form, and the odds will be enticing when the late-developing daughter of Empire Maker takes on fillies and mares in her next start in Keeneland’s Grade I Spinster and, if all goes well, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff over the same track.

Best Story: Former claiming horse Geothermal scored the first stakes win of his career in taking the closing weekend $175,000 Lukas Classic, a race now named in honor of legendary four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. An illness prevented the 80-year-old Hall of Fame trainer from presenting the winner’s trophy for his race, but the bet here is that Lukas will have to present that trophy to himself in a future running.

With that, the torch is passed to Keeneland, and the wish here is for good luck and great weather for our friends in Lexington for the Fall Meet and first Breeders’ Cup host experience. It’s just over 30 days until we see you again at Churchill Downs and, of course, as of Thursday, only 218 days remain until Kentucky Derby 142. VT