09/03/2014 12:22PM

Downs After Dark card kicks off 12-day September meet

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Churchill Downs will kick off its 12-day September meet with a Downs After Dark card on Friday night.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Not too long ago, September was a regroup month for Kentucky horsemen. Weak purse structures at Turfway Park and Kentucky Downs led some trainers to give their best horses a breather. The show went on, but this certainly was not a peak time of year.
Things have changed. September is now noticeably more competitive in Kentucky, where Kentucky Downs is now offering $1 million per card for a five-day meet and Churchill, for the second straight year, is open instead of Turfway.

A 10-race Downs After Dark card opens the 12-day Churchill meet Friday night. A few tweaks make it a bit different from last September, but overall, this is what fans can expect again: some nice stakes races, less turf racing than normal, and a struggle for respectable field sizes.

Friday night is indicative of what’s on tap this month at Churchill: There is just one turf event (race 4) – due partly to the turf spree that will commence Saturday at Kentucky Downs – and most fields are small, especially race 2, a $10,000 claiming event carded with just five fillies and mares. The field-size battle is one Churchill continues to wage in the face of competition from nearby riverboat casinos and from regional tracks.

In the meantime, Churchill continues to sharpen its marketing focus on attracting young locals to the track. The Friday theme is College Rivalry Night, wherein fans are encouraged to come attired in support of their schools. Since Churchill first began racing under the lights in 2009, it’s the kind of gimmick that has worked in getting warm bodies through the gate; they drink beer, revel in live music, and seem to have a good time, although coaxing them to the betting windows is a different deal.

Attendance on the comparable September 2013 date (it was the Saturday, not Friday, of opening weekend) was 13,963, and it is not unreasonable to expect something similar this time. Track officials have adopted a general rule of thumb about what Downs After Dark cards do in comparison to a “normal” racing day: triple the attendance, double the ontrack wagering, and a small bump in all-sources handle.

The Friday evening weather calls for hot and dry conditions, but change is expected for Saturday, when a 70 percent chance of storms and cooler temperatures enter the forecast. That dicey situation for Saturday afternoon could have an effect on the four stakes (all on dirt) that will attract the attention of serious racing fans.

That stakes quartet is led by the Grade 2, $200,000 Pocahontas and Grade 3, $100,000 Iroquois. Both 2-year-old races not only are Win and You’re In events toward the Breeders’ Cup, but both also kick off the points races in their respective divisions toward the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

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The other two Saturday stakes are for older horses: the Grade 3, $100,000 Ack Ack will have Lea as a heavy favorite as he returns from a seven-month layoff, and the $100,000 Locust Grove will have On Fire Baby as a major contender as she tries to rebound from a disappointing loss here in June.

Packaging the four stakes on one card is something new this year.

“Obviously, this meet is very much a work in progress,” said John Asher, Churchill’s vice president of racing communications. “But we’ve made it clear as a company that we’re in favor of big-event days like this, and so we felt this is something worth trying.”

Corey Lanerie, the leading jockey at five of the last six Churchill meets, is back after a summer at Saratoga, as are Rosie Napravnik, Shaun Bridgmohan, Julien Leparoux, Robby Albarado, and Brian Hernandez Jr. They’ll be joined by other familiar riders such as Calvin Borel, Leandro Goncalves, Miguel Mena, and Juan Saez, the 17-year-old apprentice who easily won the Ellis Park jockeys’ title.

Steve Asmussen, who won his 14th Churchill title at the spring meet that ended June 29, has the most starters (four) of any trainer on the Friday night opener. Three others who also can be expected to be very active this month – Brad Cox, Bret Calhoun, and Wayne Catalano – each have three in Friday.

First post Friday is 6 p.m. Eastern, with two allowances (races 4 and 8) serving as nominal features. General admission after 4 p.m. is $10. The last race, a $5,000 claiming sprint, is set for 10:42. HRTV will have on-site coverage throughout the night.

This will be the first of two Downs After Dark cards this month, with the second set for Sept. 19.