Churchill Recap: Top Horses Remain Elite, Middle and Lower Ranks Need Depth

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Churchill Downs’ 2013 spring meet was pretty much a rerun of recent years

Same old, same old.

Racing at the top remains terrific. For only the fourth time anywhere, reigning winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Fort Larned, who won the Stephen Foster) and Ladies’ Classic (Royal Delta, who lost the Fleur de Lis) ran on the same card. Stakes remained inordinately tough for their relatively sparse purses — Horse of the Year Wise Dan ran in a Grade II for $150,000. Money-won allowance races once again were like graded stakes.

But the middle and bottom continue to deteriorate with too many short fields of bad horses. It’s one thing to have a six-horse field of strong allowance horses, another when it’s a bottom claiming or maiden race. Middle-range claiming races are lucky to even be used.

Part of this is competition from other tracks in the region with purses supplemented by slots. Part of it is self-inflicted. Churchill often has catered to the biggest outfits, giving them way more than what is supposed to be the maximum number of stalls per trainer, and as a result has squeezed out a chunk of its middle- and lower-middle class and smaller outfits.

Now they need those blue-collar horses to fill the cheaper races that take up an increasing percentage of the daily program. However, many of those horses are no longer stabled at Churchill but training centers (or out of state). As such, their trainers are not beholden to running at Churchill, and instead increasingly are running for very good money against lesser competition elsewhere.

What happens to all the 2-year-old maiden winners? Not long ago, Churchill had three stakes for 2-year-old colts in the spring. Now there’s only the Bashford Manor (plus the Debutante for fillies). And there’s virtually no such thing as an allowance race for 2-year-olds. How is this, with so many 2-year-olds on the grounds?

In the big picture, Churchill has fewer problems than most racetracks. But it’s the only one calling itself “the World’s Most Legendary Racetrack.”

• Horse of the meet: How often do you get to see the Horse of the Year run twice at a Churchill meet? Wise Dan won the Grade I Woodford Reserve with aplomb, then overcame traffic in the Firecracker Handicap. A $150,000, Grade II stakes wouldn’t seem to do much for the gelding’s legacy. But that high-weight of 128 pounds — in this day and age — is going to look good on his career record.

• Race of the meet: Fort Larned’s 6-¼-length Stephen Foster victory in near track-record amid a field populated with Grade I winners was electrifying. Here’s hoping Fort Larned and Wise Dan meet at some point this year.

• Jockey of the meet: Shaun Bridgmohan won his first spring title with 53 wins, including six stakes.

• Leading newcomer (famous division): Rosie Napravnik, who dominated the past three winters in New Orleans, didn’t win the title but had a huge meet to finish second to Bridgmohan with 45 wins.

• Leading newcomer (who? division): We now know who jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. is after he finished fourth with 28 victories.

• Apprentice: Dylan Davis, son of former jockey Robbie Davis, won 16 races.

• Best week: Joel Rosario rode here Derby Week and June 15, but still finished sixth in the jockey standings, going 17 for 46. And, of course, he got the big one, the Derby on Orb.

• Owners stat: Ken and Sarah Ramsey not only smashed the record for wins at a meet (32), but they were the racing office’s best friend with 103 starters. They also won four stakes.

• Unsung heroes: Churchill Downs’ outriders, starting-gate and track-maintenance crews. These are jobs where experience matters.

• Curiously quiet: Dale Romans, the reigning Eclipse Award trainer and who ranks No. 2 in career wins at his hometown track, clearly is in rebuilding (and, in the case of multiple Grade I winners Little Mike and Dullahan, regrouping) mode, with only five wins out of 61 starts. When he won last year’s spring title, Romans went 23 for 122.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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