10/28/2011 12:28PM

Churchill Downs again the center of the racing world

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Barbara D. Livingston
Churchill Downs will hold two Stars of Tomorrow cards exclusively for 2-year-olds, and Nov. 18 will have a Downs After Dark evening card.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup count as the biggest events in American racing, then Churchill Downs is pitching a two-year shutout against the rest of the country. The 2009 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita was the last time anybody else hosted these so-called majors, and it will be a three-year span, when the 2012 BC is run again in California, before another team gets back on the scoreboard.

So is it business as usual here? Hardly. Churchill starts its 21-day fall meet Sunday with the enthusiasm quotient as high as ever. For the second straight year, and a record eighth time overall, Churchill will be hosting the Breeders’ Cup, this time amid a fresh set of story lines that promises to have the racing world abuzz when the 15 BC races are run here next Friday and Saturday.

“If you can’t find a race to like, you’re not looking,” said Churchill’s president, Kevin Flanery. “We know this is going to be the culmination of a year’s worth of focus on great racing around the world. And it will all finish here.”

Before and after this monumental event, however, there will be plenty of other meaningful goings-on at a fall meet that runs through Nov. 27. The 11-race opening-day card is the first of two programs known as Stars of Tomorrow, which are full programs restricted entirely to 2-year-olds. The other will be run on Nov. 26.

Other highlights include a Downs After Dark card on the evening of Nov. 18, and a stakes program that hits its usual crescendo on Thanksgiving weekend with a slew of graded races highlighted by the Grade 1 Clark Handicap. Churchill also has been aggressively marketing its extensive lineup of promotions, which begins opening day with a Pigskins and Ponies tie-in to University of Louisville football and a Halloween party for kids.

Racing fans, both here and in the much wider simulcast market, might reasonably argue that the most effective marketing plan is big fields and quality racing, and that’s what’s in store for opening day. The Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes (race 10) drew an outstanding field of 12, with favoritism likely to be divided among Georgie’s Angel, Believe You Can, Aubby K, and Heart of Destiny. Its male counterpart, the Grade 3 Iroquois (race 8), hopefully is just an exception to the big-field rule, as it drew just seven starters, none of them particularly distinguished at this early juncture.

The supporting races on the Sunday card are full of promising babies. Few horsemen are looking more forward to it – nor will any be busier – than Dale Romans, the 45-year-old Louisville native who has won or shared eight training titles here. Romans will have starters in seven races, more than any other trainer.

“It’s always great to be back at Churchill, especially for these 2-year-old days,” said Romans, whose three-horse Breeders’ Cup contingent is led by Preakness winner Shackleford, winner of a maiden race on the second “Stars” card here last fall. “I think they’ve really proven to be extremely popular with horsemen and fans.”

Romans said he believes he has “quite a few live ones” to saddle Sunday, including Marlin Mission (race 2), a half-sister to 2009 BC Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Tapitsfly, and Charlie in Charge (race 6), a $300,000 yearling purchase who “had a little shin trouble in the spring but seems to be going really good now,” he said.

Besides the two stakes, the Sunday opener includes three allowances (races 3, 5, 9) and six maiden special-weight events.

The familiar assortment of top jockeys will be active at Churchill even beyond the Breeders’ Cup, including Calvin Borel, Julien Leparoux, and Robby Albarado, along with Hall of Fame riders Edgar Prado and Kent Desormeaux.

HRTV will provide exclusive coverage of Churchill races, except for the two Breeders’ Cup dates. Mark Johnson returns from England for his sixth full meet as race-caller, having begun his tenure at the 2009 spring meet.

Churchill will operate on a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule, with first post set for 12:40 p.m. Eastern on most days, including opening day.