Two good things will come to an end this Labor Day weekend as Del Mar and Saratoga wrap up their sensational summer meets. But horseplayers can continue to enjoy top flight racing without skipping a beat as Kentucky Downs opens its doors on Sunday.
The upstart undulating turf-only track in Franklin, Kentucky, lacks the historic credentials of the two more well-known racing jewels, but it’s rapidly developing into a powerhouse boutique event that also serves as a double exclamation point on the end of summer.
Co-owned by Las Vegas donut heir Ron Winchell, Kentucky Downs will run on Sunday and Monday, then finish off its mini-meet with racing on Wednesday, Thursday and Sept. 11 and 12. First post is 10:20 a.m. PT daily.
There is a lot to like about Kentucky Downs. For starters, its unique layout, patterned after some of Europe’s quirkier courses, makes handicapping much more challenging. It’s difficult to even compare times with other racetracks, for example.
But that leads to generous payouts. Consider these from last year’s meet: Average return for a $2 win bet: $16.73. Average return on a $1 exacta: $65.32. Average return on a 50-cent trifecta: $269.20.
That has a lot to do with the track’s insanely lucrative purses, particularly for Kentucky-breds, courtesy of the slot-like historic racing machines it operates year round that subsidize the racing. Among the beneficiaries this year are 16 stakes races carrying a total of $10 million in purses, beginning with the $750,000 Dueling Grounds Derby and $750,000 Dueling Ground Oaks on opening day, and the $500,000 Juvenile Fillies Stakes and the $500,000 Juvenile Mile on Monday.
The purses lure top outfits from around the country and force elite riders to make tough choices. East Coast-based riders Javier Castellano, Tyler Gaffalione, Jose Ortiz and Joel Rosario, for example, all decided to miss the final day at Saratoga in favor of the rolling bluegrass of Kentucky.
That can’t have been an easy call, as both Del Mar and Saratoga are going out with a bang.
Saratoga on Saturday will debut of a pair of stakes previously held in the fall at Belmont Park: the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup (Grade 1) and the $600,000 Flower Bowl; as well as host the $250,000 Prioress Stakes and the $200,000 Saranac Stakes (Gr. 3).
It will follow up with the $300,000 Spinaway Stakes on Sunday and the $200,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap (Gr. 2) and the $300,000 Hopeful Stakes (Gr. 1) on Monday.
Del Mar will showcase the $250,000 Del Mar Derby (Gr. 2), the $200,000 John C. Mabee (Gr. 2) and the $100,000 I’m Smokin Stakes on Saturday; the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante (Gr. 1) and the $100,000 Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf on Sunday; and the $100,000 Del Mar Juvenile Turf and the $300,000 Del Mar Futurity (Gr. 1) on Monday.
NHC plans winter return
Despite a “spectacular three days” of racing wrapped around Travers Stakes weekend at Saratoga as well as challenging puzzles from Del Mar, the National Handicapping Championship will return to its customary slot in late January in 2022, Keith Chamblin, chief operating officer and NHC tournament director, told the Review-Journal this week.
“As much as we like the racing in the summer, we like our place on the calendar,” he said of the contest, which will return to Bally’s from Jan. 28-30, 2022.
Chamblin did say the NTRA is committed to keeping the championship in Southern Nevada, saying. “We think Las Vegas is the sizzle with the steak” when it comes to attracting competitors to the handicapping contests that make up the NHC Tour.
More information on the NHC Tour is available at http://www.ntra.com/nhc.
Ellis Starr’s Del Mark Derby analysis
The separation between the many good horses that can win this year’s Del Mar Derby is paper thin, but I’m going to start with None Above the Law. After winning just two of his first seven races, None Above the Law was sent from Santa Anita to Golden Gate to contest the Silky Sullivan Stakes in April, scheduled for turf but run on the all-weather main track due to inclement weather. That was his best race to date, as None Above the Law rallied from ninth to win going away. Staying around at Golden Gate, one month later in the Alcatraz Stakes, this time remaining on the grass as scheduled, None Above the Law won easily again, this time in a field of 10. Returning to Southern California and stretching out to the same 9-furlong turf trip as the Del Mar Derby, None Above the Law rallied to miss by a neck behind Jimmy Blue Jeans. Next came a rare poor effort in the Oceanside when ninth, but when shortened up to 7 furlongs at the end of July, None Above the Law returned to top form, blowing away the field to win by five lengths with a career-best, and better still, field high, last race 103 Equibase Speed Figure. Looking back at his previous races, when stretching out from a sprint to a route in January, None Above the Law led late and ended up second in the California Cup Derby, then when doing the same in April he won the Silky Sullivan. As such, I expect None Above the Law to run a big race and likely at high odds as he will be overlooked by many bettors. Although leading jockey Flavien Prat gets off to ride Hudson Ridge, I have no concerns, and actually am pretty excited by the presence of Joe Bravo, who came to ride at Del Mar since the start of the meet and who has been very impressive, winning 21 of 98 races at the meet through last weekend and with a record on turf rivaling that of top turf jockeys Flavien Prat and Umberto Rispoli.
Zoffarelli (IRE) was placed first in the La Jolla Stakes following the disqualification of Sword Zorro (IRE) but in my opinion he would have won that race with a clean trip. Making his U.S. debut in the La Jolla, Zoffarelli lacked room at a critical stage of the stretch run then was bumped hard by Sword Zorro, who was inside, and into Hudson Ridge, who was outside. The 97 figure is highly likely to be improved upon in the horse’s second U.S. start which gives Zoffarelli a chance to win his second graded stakes in as many tries since importing from Europe.
No Foolery Here finished third in the opening day Oceanside Stakes, and ran as well as winner Flashiest and runner-up Crew Dragon when beaten a head and a nose for the win. One race before that, No Foolery Here won at the 9-furlong turf distance of the Derby, then in the Oceanside he was flying late from eighth at the top of the stretch to come up inches short on the wire, earning a strong 101 figure in the process. The Oceanside turned out to be a “Key Race” which continues to be very productive. Oceanside runner-up Crew Dragon won his next race, and Hockey Dad (who was beaten a head, nose and neck) returned to nearly win his next start. None Above the Law improved off his ninth place effort to win a stakes, and the seventh place finisher won a stakes race at Golden Gate in his next start. As one of the few horses which has not run since the Oceanside, it follows that No Foolery Here should improve markedly and as such he could be a big factor in the Del Mar Derby, potentially at high odds as he was 39 to 1 in the Oceanside.
Certainly, Sword Zorro and Hudson Ridge must be given some respect based on their efforts in the La Jolla, a race in which they earned 98 and 97 figures, respectively. However it must be noted Sword Zorro (IRE) gets a poor outside post in a big field and could lose ground on both turns. Similarly, Crew Dragon and Flashiest, the second and first place finishers in the Oceanside Stakes, respectively, fit in the Del Mar Derby perfectly, but could be disadvantaged by poor outside posts.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Barraza (97), Cathkin Peak (IRE) (100), Hockey Dad (100), Jimmy Blue Jeans (98), Lincoln Hawk (99), Optimistic Valor (96) and Petruchio (98).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.