09/04/2013 1:37PM

Churchill Downs: Track officials unsure what to expect as September meet begins

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Tom Keyser
Ghost Is Clear, first or second in his last three starts, is the 9-5 mornig-line favorite in Friday's $53,000 sprint feature.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Well, here it is. The noble experiment being undertaken by Churchill Downs with a 12-day September meet begins Friday as a welcome replacement for Turfway Park while track officials wonder aloud how it will be received in the local and national marketplaces.

A 10-race card that starts at 1:45 p.m. Eastern looks a lot like a spring or fall Churchill card – except for a noticeable, and intended, dearth of turf racing – with a sprinkling of decent allowance races and fields of moderate size. Unlike a concurrent meet with Kentucky Downs, where a five-day meet begins Saturday with a massive purse structure, there are no $90,000 maiden races or million-dollar race cards.

“We’re as eager as anyone to see how our fans respond to the novelty of us running a race meet in September, as well as horseplayers watching by simulcast or computer throughout the country,” said track spokesman John Asher. “This is brand new territory for us, and as always, we’re going to be offering the best product we possibly can. We’re very optimistic in that respect.”

Per-day purses are expected to average a little more than $400,000, which is below what Churchill typically offers at its two traditional meets but far more than what had become the fall-meet norm at Turfway, the northern Kentucky track where business has slumped for years. Churchill, spurred by requests from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and horsemen’s advocates, essentially stepped up to the plate as a means to help solidify the state’s racing circuit, although not all their motivation is of a benevolent nature.

“We think we can make this go as a profitable venture for the company,” said Asher. “We fully intend to make this an annual thing.”

Toward that end, two of the four Saturdays will be Downs After Dark programs, which have proved extremely popular with local racegoers since debuting in 2009. In addition, a solid eight-race stakes program is bolstered by former fall-meet fixtures such as the Iroquois, Pocahontas, and Ack Ack this Saturday, as well as the $175,000 Homecoming Classic, a new 1 1/8-mile race to be run Sept. 28 as a potential prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic or the Clark Handicap in late November.

The richest of three allowances on the Friday opener is a $53,000, third-level sprint (race 4) in which Ghost Is Clear, owned and trained by Mike Maker, can be expected to be favored in a field of six older sprinters. One of the fringe players is Next Right Thing, whose trainer, Garry Simms, said he welcomes the opportunity to run at his hometown track.

“The horse likes this track and has been training real well,” said Simms. “I’m just glad to have a spot like this available this time of year.”

A pair of $48,000 allowances (races  5 and 9) also are on tap Friday. No turf races are carded, and in fact, only 11 (or less than one per card) are indexed in the condition book. This not only complements the action at turf-only Kentucky Downs, but also preserves the turf course during this warm-and-dry season prior to the regular fall meet that starts Oct. 27.

Shaun Bridgmohan, the leading rider at the spring meet, is back from Saratoga with four mounts on the opener. He will be joined by a talented cast of dozens, including the longtime Southern California regular David Flores, who is moving to Kentucky for the next three months.

The meet runs on a Friday-to-Sunday basis for all four weekends through Sept. 29.