10/26/2012 3:09PM

Churchill Downs: Fall meet brings a local focus


If the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup are considered the two biggest happenings in North American racing, well, Churchill Downs is finally skipping a turn.

Since the Breeders’ Cup left Santa Anita after the 2009 running, each of those mega-events has been held in Louisville, Ky., at Churchill. Now, as the Breeders’ Cup returns to California, Churchill can focus on its own little slice of the racing world for the next four weeks, although it’s debatable whether that will qualify as a period of relative idleness.

Indeed, the next month promises to be eventful, starting on opening day Sunday with an 11-race Stars of Tomorrow card dedicated exclusively to 2-year-olds. The Grade 2 Pocahontas (race 8), which drew eight fillies, and the Grade 3 Iroquois (race 10), which has a well-matched field of 10 colts and geldings, should get things away quick from the gate.

Not that the meet will lack a closing kick. As usual, the final weekend will feature a string of graded races, highlighted on Nov. 23 by the Grade 1, $400,000 Clark Handicap, which frequently shapes up as a key race in the division. A second Stars of Tomorrow card featuring the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and the Grade 2 Golden Rod is set for Nov. 24.

Dale Romans and Corey Lanerie, the respective leading trainer and jockey at the spring meet, are back with proverbial guns loaded for their title defenses. Romans, with more 2-year-olds at his disposal than ever, has entries in five races Sunday, a typical number for a stable that thrives on action.

“This is home, and I’d rather be leading trainer here, in front of family and friends, than anywhere else,” said Romans.

Lanerie would have to be considered the favorite to unseat Julien Leparoux, who has won the last five fall-meet riding titles. After riding Sunday at Churchill, Leparoux is leaving to compete full-time on the Southern California circuit.

Besides the two graded stakes, the Sunday opener includes three allowances (races 3, 5, 9), with the six remaining races all maiden special-weights. Interesting pedigrees and back-stories can be found in pretty much any of them, including the last race, when a first-time starter named Gunderson, a half-brother to 2011 juvenile champion Hansen, will make his career debut.

“He’s not as fast or precocious as Hansen, but he’s unbeaten in his workouts,” said his owner-breeder, Kendall Hansen.

The Stars of Tomorrow concept was inaugurated in 2005 by then-racing secretary Doug Bredar under the supervision of Donnie Richardson, the longtime senior vice president of racing who it was announced recently will be leaving Churchill at the end of the year.

Richardson joins a lengthy list of longtime Churchill officials to leave the company in recent years. Butch Lehr, the track superintendent for 30 years, resigned in the summer and has been replaced by his brother, David.

Besides the opening and closing events, other features of the 21-day fall meet will include the Breeders’ Cup simulcasts next weekend; the always popular college scholarship day on Nov. 10; and the lone night-racing card of the meet on Nov. 17, with a theme of “The Roaring Twenties.” Fans would be remiss not to notice the progress being made on yet another massive upgrade of the expansive facility, a $9 million construction project that includes, among other things, a wide-open plaza adjacent to the paddock.

The stakes program will encompass 14 races worth nearly $2 million, with total purses estimated at nearly $9.3 million for a daily average of about $442,000. Field size typically is much better than in the spring because of the greater availability of race-ready 2-year-olds; the average last fall was 9.36 per race, versus just 7.74 in the spring.

First post daily is 12:40 p.m. Eastern, with the lone exceptions the night card (4:30) and Thanksgiving, Nov. 22 (11:30 a.m.). The balance of closing weekend formerly carried an earlier post, too, but those cards will start at 12:40 p.m. with the last few races being run under the lights. The meet runs through Nov. 25, with Mondays and Tuesdays dark.

The first 5,000 people in attendance on opening day will receive a free 2013 wall calendar.