AÂ memorable and successful Fall Meet at Churchill Downs concluded its 21-day run on a gray, but mostly dry, Sunday. Despite the skies and an occasional raindrop, there was a general good feeling at the end of the meet.
Sure, business levels were much improved over last yearâ€™s Fall Meet, and the weather was certainly better. Remember that the track lost two days to a deep freeze that resulted in a frozen track and two lost days of racing in the autumn of 2014.
Iâ€™ll write next week about the racing and individual highlights of the Churchill Downs Fall Meet in what has, overall, been a good year to be beneath the Twins Spires. Our focus here is on the 2-year-olds that competed during the Fall Meet â€“ young stars that, their owners, trainers and jockeys hope will develop into contenders for the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on Saturday, May 7 and the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks for fillies a day earlier.
Hereâ€™s one manâ€™s list of 10(ish) young stars that left strong impressions in races of the just concluded Fall Racing session (Note: he is pretty excited about the potential of these horses):
1. Airoforce â€“ Trainer Mark Casse has yet to win a Kentucky Derby, but Airoforce could be his best shot yet to make noise on the first Saturday in May. A last-jump defeat by Aidan Oâ€™Brienâ€™s European star Hit It a Bomb in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile Turf is his only loss in four races, and he impressed in his main track debut, albeit on a sloppy surface, in the Kentucky Jockey Club (â€œKJCâ€) on last Saturdayâ€™s Stars of Tomorrow II (â€œSOTIIâ€) card. The sprint-heavy bottom side of his pedigree is a concern, but I love a horse with grass ability that tries the Churchill Downs dirt. Animal Kingdom, winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby, comes to mind. Airoforce intrigues me enough to top the list of Fall Meet juvenile heroes for now; although, there is a chance the gray could be the second-best gray 2-year-old in his barn behindâ€¦
2. Conquest Big E â€“ Casseâ€™s son of Tapit defeated Unexplained (see No. 6) in a SOTII allowance that erased misgivings generated by his eighth-place finish behind the Dale Romans-trained Brodyâ€™s Cause in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. Conquest Big E has the same stamina-concerns in the bottom of his pedigree as Airoforce, as both are out of mares by the sprinter Carson City. But that sire also passes on ability to run in the mud, and youâ€™ll recall that it has rained on a Derby Day or two in recent memory.
3. Carina Mia â€“ Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the all-time leader in victories and stakes wins at Churchill Downs, added to both categories when Carina Mia rolled to a 4 Â¼-length win in SOTIIâ€™s Golden Rod. She had things her way on an easy lead and is built to run on the sloppy track she encountered in the Golden Rod, but her last two races have displayed immense potential. That is a wonderful tool in the hands of the masterful Mott.
4. Stageplay â€“ The daughter of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin lost for the first time in the Golden Rod, but she was at a strong disadvantage when forced to chase the speedy Carina Mia. She defeated Carina Mia at Keeneland in their respective racing debuts, and thereâ€™s a good chance she will get another â€“ and more advantageous â€“ shot at her rival prior to the Kentucky Oaks.
5. Gun Runner â€“ This Candy Ride (ARG) colt could end up being trainer Steve Asmussenâ€™s best shot yet to win a Kentucky Derby. His race over sloppy going in the Kentucky Jockey Club was deceptively good and was a terrific learning experience. There is no question he will improve from that run, his first at a two-turn distance.
6. Unexplained â€“ An eye-catching longshot last-to-first maiden win early in the meet was validated by a strong late-closing runner-up to Conquest Big E in their SOTII allowance race. Trainer Chris Richardâ€™s Ghostzapper gelding appears poised to improve.
7. Smart Shopper â€“ A sharp SOTII debut by trainer Brendan Walshâ€™s Smart Strike filly saw her squeeze through a narrow opening on the rail and win over sloppy going. Horses that overcome significant obstacles early in their careers merit subsequent close attention.
8. Mo Tom â€“ He rallied from last for third in the KJC after winning the Street Sense on Opening Dayâ€™s Stars of Tomorrow I program. Stablemate Tomâ€™s Ready ran poorly in the KJC but seemed the better of the two when they ran 1-2 in the Street Sense. Both merit respect.
9. Synchrony â€“ Trainer Donnie Von Hemelâ€™s Tapit colt showed all the right stuff in a gritty allowance win on November 14. He possesses the pedigree to be something special.
10. Whitmore â€“ The gelding by Pleasantly Perfect ran fifth over a muddy track in the recent Delta Jackpot in Louisiana but was a runaway winner in fast track debut at Churchill Downs in early November. Two horses that ran far behind Whitmore in the latter scored easy wins in their subsequent starts. Do not go to sleep on this Ron Moquettâ€™s trainee.
11. Mor Spirit â€“ Yes, 10 horses would be a logical place to have stopped, but I could not omit the Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirt, a solid KJC runner-up. Itâ€™s Bob Baffert, but heâ€™s the guy who won big races with Hoppertunity and Isitingood. Nuff said. VT