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Derby Doings: Churchill Downs opens meet with night card
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The first program of the spring meet at Churchill Downs has always been cause for celebration, and why not? Spring is in the air, the horses are back in town, and most importantly, the Kentucky Derby is only a week away.
Still, opening day under the old Twin Spires has always been somewhat subdued. Not any more: Churchill will open Saturday with a glitzy night program for the first time in track history, an innovation that will try to give new meaning to breaking swiftly from the gate.
KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS: Track all the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail
“We created this new stand-alone event to help properly kick off and celebrate Kentucky Derby Week,” said track president Kevin Flanery, adding that racing fans in Louisville “love to dress up and love a good party. We intend to deliver that to them.”
The Derby Trial, as usual, is the highlight Saturday, when first post time is 6 p.m. Eastern. Not since Tim Tam in 1958 has a horse returned from the Trial to win the Derby, but the race remains relevant for a number of reasons. One is its purse of $200,000; another is its occasional role as a stepping-stone to the Preakness or major middle-distance events; and yet another is its nomenclature, which, in case anybody forgot, serves as a literal reminder of the far bigger bash about to take place here.
None of the nine 3-year-olds in the one-mile Trial (race 8, post 9:39) is expected back for the 137th Derby on May 7, even in case of victory, which means the 20 horses with secured spots in the Derby gate can rest easy. As of Thursday, the 20th horse on the graded-earnings list that guides eligibility in case the race is oversubscribed remains Twinspired, with Anthony’s Cross the first on deck at No. 21. That is always subject to change, of course, with all the activity still to come before entries are taken Wednesday morning and drawn later that evening on the second floor of the Churchill clubhouse.
Easily the biggest Derby news from Thursday came some 1,000 miles away at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida, where the likely lukewarm favorite, Dialed In, breezed a half-mile in 48.53 seconds under exercise rider Maxine Correa. The move prompted his trainer, Nick Zito, to guarantee that “this horse won’t be short” when the Derby is run at 1 1/4 miles.
Meanwhile, back at Churchill, Uncle Mo cut a striking figure when galloping about 1 1/4 miles in making his first appearance during the window of training reserved every morning for Derby and Kentucky Oaks horses at about 8:30 a.m. After standing quietly alongside a stable pony for several minutes at the eighth pole, the colt eased off into a steady lope, with neck bowed and ears pricked while moving aggressively over freshly harrowed ground.
“He looked like he always does,” said trainer Todd Pletcher.
Since arriving here April 18, Uncle Mo has been training under the Churchill lights well before dawn, including his five-furlong breeze Tuesday. He had Wednesday off before returning to the track Thursday.
Nine of the confirmed Derby horses underwent routine training procedures during the 8:30 window Thursday, while three more – Nehro, Santiva, and Twice the Appeal – were out earlier. There were no Derby works here Wednesday or Thursday. The rest of the Derby runners will be arriving over the next few days.
Thursday morning coincided with an overdue and welcome break in the local weather. After more than a week of intermittent and sometimes torrential rain, the skies were sunny, albeit with temperatures that started in the 40s before eventually warming into the high 60s.
While weather.com is forecasting the possible return of showers by Sunday or Monday, conditions should be ideal in the intervening mornings, when a slew of Derby prospects will be sent through final pre-race workouts. Several were set for Friday, while even more were scheduled to go Saturday or Sunday, including Animal Kingdom, Pants On Fire, Shackleford, Watch Me Go, and Twinspired, who is based at the nearby Trackside training center with trainer Mike Maker.
The last couple of remaining pieces in the Derby jockey puzzle still had yet to fall into place Thursday afternoon, although there was widespread speculation that Garrett Gomez will be getting the mount on Master of Hounds for Coolmore Stud. Master of Hounds, trained by Aidan O’Brien, is scheduled to arrive here Tuesday from Ireland. He was most recently second by a nose in the March 26 UAE Derby in Dubai.
On Wednesday, Calvin Borel, the winning jockey in three of the last four derbies, picked up one of the few remaining available mounts when trainer Jeff Bonde named him to ride Twice the Appeal.
A handful of jockeys will be riding in the Derby for the first time this year, and none will be getting more attention than 23-year-old Rosie Napravnik, who will be the first woman to ride in the Derby in eight years and just the sixth since Diane Crump became the first in 1970.
Napravnik, who also has the Oaks mount aboard St. John’s River, said she was recently interviewed for the “Today” show on NBC and also has “a lot” of requests she intends to fulfill with major media outlets, including CBS and Sports Illustrated.
Mr. Commons still a remote possibility for Derby
Mr. Commons, third in the Santa Anita Derby and all but ruled out of the Kentucky Derby due to insufficient graded stakes earnings, would have worked shorter than seven furlongs Thursday at Hollywood Park. But when Churchill Downs officials phoned trainer John Shirreffs earlier that morning to inquire about Mr. Commons’s status, Shirreffs called an audible.
“I wasn’t planning on going long with him,” Shirreffs said. “But when I heard how close it’s getting, I decided to work him long just on the off chance [he gets in].”
With graded earnings of $120,000 from four starts, Mr. Commons as of midweek was 24th on the earnings list, but at least two ranked in front of him are not considered possible starters. That would push Mr. Commons to 22nd on the list; 20 can start.
“It seemed like an impossible situation, but this week there have been lots of changes,” Shirreffs said. “We haven’t closed the door on [a Derby start].”
On a warm, clear Hollywood morning at 9 a.m., Mr. Commons and jockey Mike Smith worked seven furlongs on Cushion Track in 1:25.20. Mr. Commons broke off about four lengths behind a workmate, caught that one halfway through the workout, pulled clear on the turn, and ran away through the lane.
According to Hollywood clocker and morning line maker Russ Hudak, Mr. Commons’s fractional times were as follows: 24.40 seconds, 36.40, 48.20, 1:00.40, and 1:25.20.
The 2-for-4 Mr. Commons is dappled out, looks good physically, and remains under consideration, for now at least, for one of the first two Triple Crown races.
“If he goes back, it will be for the Derby or the Preakness,” Shirreffs said. “If not, I’ll keep him here and run on grass.”
If Mr. Commons draws into the field, he might need a rider. Mike Smith is scheduled to ride Blue Grass runner-up Twinspired in the Derby.
◗ Anthony’s Cross, the Hollywood-based colt currently ranked 21st on the Derby earnings list, will work five furlongs on Sunday, trainer Eoin Harty said. If it appears he will get into the field, he would ship on Tuesday.
– additional reporting by Brad Free and Mike Welsch