10/25/2013 1:05PM

Churchill Downs fall meet opens with Stars of Tomorrow card


Weren’t we just here? Didn’t we just run over to Keeneland for a few days before finding ourselves right back here at Churchill Downs?

Indeed, some Kentucky racing fans and participants might be asking themselves those very questions as the 25-day fall meet gets started at Churchill. In fact, it was less than a month ago – as opposed to the traditional four-month break – when live racing was last conducted at the historic Louisville track, the result of the addition of a brand-new September meet to a revised racing calendar in Kentucky.

While that substantive change is worth noting, what is virtually identical to falls past is the brand of racing to be conducted over the next five weeks at Churchill. The meet begins Sunday and ends Nov. 30 with Stars of Tomorrow programs exclusively for 2-year-olds, while the Grade  1 Clark Handicap will serve as the customary meet highlight on Nov. 29. Racing will be conducted on a five-day-a-week basis, with Mondays and Tuesdays dark.

Purse levels are down from previous fall meets – racing secretary Ben Huffman estimates the per-day average to be nearly $360,000 – and that’s essentially because Churchill borrowed from Peter to pay Paul for its 12-day September meet, when all-sources handle projections did not meet expectations. Still, judging by the 11-race Sunday opener (first post, 12:40 p.m. Eastern), the caliber of competition appears to be similar to past years.

Twin $60,000 stakes have replaced the Iroquois and Pocahontas (both shifted to the September meet as Win and You’re In events toward the Breeders’ Cup) as opening-day features, both at a one-turn mile. Named for the respective winners of the 2007 Kentucky Oaks and Derby, the Rags to Riches drew a field of eight fillies and anchors the card as race 9 (post 4:34), with the Street Sense (race 5, post 2:35) coming two hours earlier with just six betting interests from seven colts.

Pat Byrne has been particularly high on one of the Street Sense favorites, Almost Famous, since the son of Unbridled’s Song won at first asking on the second weekend of the September meet.

“He’s had a couple really nice breezes since then and is training right along,” Byrne said.

His chief threats figure to be Ride On Curlin, most recently third in the Grade 1 Champagne in New York, and Coastline, a 3 1/2-length maiden winner three weeks ago at Keeneland.

In the Rags to Riches, the filly to beat appears to be Vexed, a homebred filly whose owners, Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, won the Pocahontas on this same weekend last year with Sign, a 3-year-old half-sister to Vexed.

Trained by Al Stall Jr., Vexed was a sharp maiden winner at the September meet in her second career start.

“She’s a big filly who’s really getting herself organized,” Stall said. “The way she’s developed is exciting.”

Other logical contenders in the Rags to Riches include Tepin, Ocean Boulevard, and Chicago invader Loya.

Both opening-day features are designed as preps for the pair of Grade 2 races set for closing day, the Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod.

The first graded stakes of the meet, the Grade 2 Chilukki, will be run next Saturday, when coinciding with the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. In all, nine graded races are on the Churchill fall schedule, including a pair of 3-year-old turf stakes, the Mrs. Revere and Commonwealth Turf, on the lone Downs After Dark night program of the meet on Nov. 16.

Among the prominent owners here this fall will be Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who already have been the leading owners at seven individual meets this year, including the Churchill spring and September meets. Ken Ramsey, with Mike Maker as his primary local trainer, said recently he fully intends to run “a lot of horses” and extend his own record for Churchill meet titles (19).

The meet features a new wager: the “Single Six Jackpot,” modeled after similar pick six wagers at Gulfstream Park and other tracks. The 50-cent minimum wager requires a bettor to have the only perfect ticket to sweep the pool. It will be held daily on races 3 through 8.