10/23/2008 11:00PM

Autumn brings out the juvenile brigade


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There are a multitude of subtle differences in the Churchill Downs spring and fall meets, not the least of which is the preponderance of 2-year-old racing in the fall.

The Churchill Downs racing secretary, Ben Huffman, estimated that whereas only three or four races for 2-year-olds are conducted weekly in the spring, "we average at least 10, probably more," per week in the fall. The most overt signs of 2-year-olds being a primary focus will arise twice at the meet, on the Nov. 1 and 29 cards, when the Stars of Tomorrow programs are renewed.

"The bottom line is that this area has an abundance of 2-year-olds ready to run at this time of year," said Huffman, 39. "Obviously in the spring, not as many horses have matured to the satisfaction of their trainers, and you don't have as big a pool to draw from."

The Stars of Tomorrow cards are exclusively for 2-year-olds and have tended to draw more interest and wagering handle than might be expected on a normal Saturday, according to Churchill officials. The Stars of Tomorrow concept was first employed by the late Bobby Umphrey at Calder before being implemented at the 2005 fall meet at Churchill by then-racing secretary Doug Bredar.

"The maiden, allowance, and stakes races all seem to serve their purpose," said Huffman, who was hired as Churchill racing secretary some 4 1/2 years after getting the same post at Keeneland in January 2002.

For Churchill, creating plenty of opportunities to allow 2-year-olds to develop is somewhat of a self-serving, if unintended, benefit toward the track's marquee events, the Kentucky Oaks and Derby, the following spring. In the last three years, the following horses have won or run in 2-year-old stakes at the fall meet: Lady Joanne, Pure Clan, Court Vision, Any Given Saturday, and Anak Nakal, all of whom distinguished themselves in more important races a little further down the line.

Meanwhile, Huffman, like everyone else, is hoping the account-wagering stalemate that has resulted in substantial purse cuts at Churchill this year will soon be resolved. Management and horsemen have been at odds over how to split up account-wagering revenue since late April, and one noticeable effect has been a 2008 fall stakes schedule with only about two-thirds the monetary value of its 2007 counterpart. Stakes purses this fall are expected to total just more than $1.9 million, down from the initial projections of $2.9 million.

"There's really no way to know how negatively it will affect us until we're all the way through," said Huffman. "Some races, I guess it could hurt us. We're all worried about it a little bit, although we really had no choice but to do it."

One race that went untouched was the $500,000 Clark Handicap, the annual fall-meet highlight. A longtime Grade 2 fixture, the Clark was awarded Grade 1 status for one year - the 2006 running, won by Premium Tap - before being lowered back to a Grade 2 for 2007, when A.P. Arrow won.

"Something we'd really like to do is get the Clark back to a Grade 1," said Huffman. As for the other stakes, "We'd like to think they haven't been hurt too much by the purse cuts. It's not like people will be running for chump change."