05/10/2013 12:56PM

Churchill Downs: Post-Derby period difficult to fill races with quality horses

Pat Lang/Lang Photography
Future Prospect, shown winning the WinStar Kentucky Cup at Turfway Park in 2011, will run for a $16,000 claiming tag Sunday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The dearth of quality entries in certain races at Churchill Downs at this time of year is often roundly criticized by racing fans, but there is a certain rhyme and reason to why the Churchill product can seem unappealing at this particular time.

“I call it the post-Derby blues,” Churchill spokesman John Asher said. “It’s an annual concern that we always seem to find ourselves trying to weather. You’ve got three weeks of high-class racing at Keeneland and then all the great races we run here Derby Week. It’s only logical that it’s pretty difficult to sustain those kinds of levels indefinitely.”

While few racing secretaries command greater respect in the business than Ben Huffman, who serves in that role at Churchill and Keeneland, he and his staff are beholden to what horses are at their disposal. And with many of the high-class stables pulling up stakes to move to New York and elsewhere after the Derby, the ranks can get pretty thin – which explains the glut of maiden and lower-end claiming races that have tended to dominate recent offerings here.

“Entries actually picked up a bit for Sunday,” said Asher, noting that 96 horses are entered for an 11-race card, a decent number. “We’re optimistic that it can stay fairly solid the rest of the way. As most people know, we struggle more for entries here in the spring than in the fall, when far more 2-year-olds are ready to run and fill races.”

Asher said the “big-picture issues” of competition from tracks with slot-fed purses “are never far away” and that Churchill is maintaining a stance of persevering in the face of what can be done while operating at that disadvantage.

“The tracks in this region and beyond that have the benefit of alternative gaming clearly have made life challenging for us in terms of putting together the numbers we’d prefer to have,” he said. “Indiana is in a stronger position than they’ve been in a while, and Pennsylvania is going good right now. It’s clearly a major issue, but it has been for years. I can assure you we’re doing the very best we can under the circumstances.”

Radcliffe taking 20 horses to Canterbury

Bobby Radcliffe has spent much of his adult life scraping by in various roles on the racetrack, but now the 50-year-old trainer has a golden opportunity ahead of him. Radcliffe is taking a 20-horse stable to Canterbury Park for a new client, Lorie L. Michaels, a Lexington-area breeder who races primarily under the banner of Winchester Place Thoroughbreds.

Radcliffe, a former longtime assistant to the late Danny Hutt, will run three horses on the Sunday card at Churchill before leaving Thursday for Minnesota. He was badly injured in a training accident at Churchill in December 2010 and now lives with 39 screws, two plates, and a titanium rod in his left ankle as a result.

“I feel great, especially now that I have this big chance,” he said. “It’s only going to work out if we can go up there and win races. It’s nothing until I make it successful.”

Radcliffe, who continues to exercise some of the horses he trains, said the accident “put me out of business” for several months before he began working his way back. “I’m in a good spot now and need to make the most of it,” he said.

Michaels has a handful of Minnesota-breds that should fit well at Canterbury, which is one reason the stable is headed there, Radcliffe said.

“The plan is to eventually settle back in Kentucky year-round,” he said.

Claiming race draws three stakes winners

The sixth race Sunday might look like an ordinary $16,000 claiming sprint, but surely the residual class level is a few notches above what that price suggests: Three of the eight runners are stakes winners with combined earnings of more than $1.3 million from 127 starts.

Future Prospect, an earner of $481,908, won the most recent Kentucky Cup Classic held at Turfway Park in 2011. The 9-year-old Future Prospect also won a pair of small New York-bred stakes in 2009.

Our Edge ($368,442) is a 7-year-old horse who was a back-to-back stakes winner at 3, ending with the Grade 3 Barbaro at Delaware Park. He was sharp enough last summer at Saratoga to win a second-level optional $50,000 claiming race when competing for the tag.

Grand Traverse ($478,360) is a 10-year-old gelding who was a mainstay for several years in higher-level sprints. He won the 2009 Bonapaw on the Fair Grounds turf and has multiple stakes placings.

“He’s brought us years and years of enjoyment,” said Lori Hebel-Osborne, who heads the Mimicry Partnership that bred Grand Traverse and has owned him throughout a racing career of nearly eight years. “He knows he’s old, but he loves what he’s doing and just isn’t ready to pack it in. He still thinks it’s a lot of fun.”