04/21/2010 11:00PM

More to the meet than Derby Week


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs has 135 years' worth of archives to prove that life does indeed exist after the Kentucky Derby. Of course, when Churchill opens every year with the Derby Trial on the last Saturday in April, few people have the time or inclination to look beyond the first Saturday in May.

Kevin Flanery, the 13th president of Churchill Downs racetrack, is one of those rare individuals willing to see past the frantic first week of the 42-day spring meet that ends July 4.

"We're pretty unusual in that our Super Bowl is played the first week of the season, so to speak," said Flanery, 44, a native of Louisville who ascended to his current position last July. "We think we're going to have a spectacular Derby again this year. The Derby always generates a lot of excitement, and understandably so. But we're also excited about what we've got going on here later this spring."

In reality, the day-to-day racing product at Churchill figures to suffer noticeably from the effects of competing states offering slots-infused purses while the Kentucky legislature has declined to approve similar measures. In terms of filling races, there are some not-so-subtle hints on the opening-day Saturday card - four of the 11 races have just six starters - that racing secretary Ben Huffman and his staff could be in for a rough time.

But Churchill fans still have something to look forward to: four Friday nights (June 11, 18, 25, and July 2) under the new permanent lighting system, and - cross your fingers now - a Stephen Foster that might feature the long-awaited showdown between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.

Trainer John Shirreffs has said he intends to point Zenyatta toward the Grade 1 Foster on June 12. Although owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen still haven't even committed to what has been widely speculated as her next race - the La Troienne on the Kentucky Oaks undercard next Friday - there have been signs that Rachel Alexandra is returning to form and whispers that her connections are contemplating a run in the Foster.

Expectations are also high for night racing. Churchill held three Friday night cards during its spring meet last year and drew a combined crowd of 89,000, including more than 33,000 on the final evening program.

But all that might be getting too far ahead. Derby week will present the usual 18-hour workdays for Flanery and many of his employees, and after momentarily catching their breath, 36 more racing days will lay ahead.

"We believe that we have a lot to offer this whole spring, not just to the people here in the community, but also to the thousands of people in simulcast facilities across the country, too," said Flanery. "We're very optimistic that we're going to have a successful meet on a number of levels."

Soaring Empire's notable connections

Soaring Empire, trained by Cam Gambolati, figures as one of the outsiders in a very competitive running of the Derby Trial, but for nostalgia's sake, the Empire Maker colt might be worth a look. This year marks the 25-year anniversary of Gambolati sending out Spend a Buck to his remarkable wire-to-wire Derby victory under Angel Cordero Jr.

Soaring Empire is owned by the Ol Memorial Stable, a partnership that includes University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, and the father-son team of Ed and Clint Glasscock. Soaring Empire has won 2 of 4 starts and most recently finished eighth with traffic problems in the March 20 Florida Derby.

"We think the horse is a lot better than what the Florida Derby might suggest," said Clint Glasscock. "We don't have any plans for him beyond this. We just hope he runs like we know he's capable of, and then we'll go from there."

* As usual, the Churchill meet starts with an extraordinary number of big-name jockeys and trainers prepared to compete here through the Derby, but afterward, many will return to New York, California, and elsewhere. Among those sticking around who can reasonably be expected to rank among the leaders at the spring meet are Steve Asmussen, Mike Maker, Ken McPeek, and Dale Romans among trainers, and Robby Albarado, Calvin Borel, and Julien Leparoux among jockeys.

* Winchester, winless in eight races since romping in the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes in August 2008 at Arlington Park, finally broke the drought when he found his way through heavy traffic to post a last-gasp victory in the Wednesday feature at Keeneland, a second-level allowance at 1 1/2 miles on turf. Winchester paid $2.80 under Garrett Gomez.

* Tickets remain on sale for the Infield Club for Oaks and Derby Days. The Infield Club is an upscale, sports bar-like area with mutuel windows, restrooms, and other amenities cordoned off in a 32,000-square-foot section of the infield. Oaks Day admission is $75, Derby Day is $200, and a two-day package is $250. More information is available at kentuckyderby.com.

* Derby week regulars who have made the media party on Thursday night a part of their annual routine will need to rearrange their schedules. For the first time in many years, the media party is being held on Wednesday night, in large part to accommodate the new Taste of Derby event on Thursday night at the Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center. Taste of Derby is open to the public, with tickets selling for $250.