(Photo: Gear Jockey, in the lead on the rail under Jose Lezcano, won the $1 million FanDuel Turf Sprint to earn a fees-paid spot in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint Saturday at Del Mar. Coady Photography)
FRANKLIN, Ky. (Tuesday, November 2, 2021) — Thirteen horses who competed at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs are entered in the 14 Breeders’ Cup World Championships races this Friday and Saturday at Del Mar racetrack near San Diego.
That includes Calumet Farm’s Gear Jockey, winner of Kentucky Downs’ $1 million FanDuel Turf Sprint and one of the favorites for Saturday’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1).
Gear Jockey’s trainer, Rusty Arnold, isn’t surprised by the numbers, saying it’s indicative of Kentucky Downs’ emergence as a major player nationally.
“They went from being a ‘quirky’ track to a ‘unique’ track now,” Arnold said of the all-turf meet over America’s only European-style course, offering among the most lucrative purses in the world. “I mean, people will run a good horse there now. Horses come from everywhere — from Maryland, New York, Kentucky, California to run.”
Not just the Breeders’ Cup entries, but the recently concluded Keeneland fall meet backs up Arnold.
Kentucky Downs-raced horses won six of Keeneland’s 12 turf stakes. Three of those are in the Breeders’ Cup, receiving a fees-paid spot for capturing a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race:
In Love (Saturday’s $2 million FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile) won a division of Kentucky Downs’ TVG Stakes and went on to take Keeneland’s Grade 1 Keeneland Turf Mile. Tiz the Bomb (Friday’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf) captured the $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile and Keeneland’s Grade 2 Castle & Key Bourbon. California Angel (Friday’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf) won a Kentucky Downs maiden race and Keeneland’s Grade 2 Jessamine.
The other 10 Breeders’ Cup horses that ran at Kentucky Downs in September include Grade 1 winners Got Stormy and Casa Creed (both in the Mile on turf) and Snapper Sinclair (Dirt Mile), the first horse to win three stakes at Kentucky Downs when he took the other division of the TVG Stakes. Ainsworth Stakes winner Koala Princess and Aristocrat Juvenile Fillies heroine Turnerloose both must be respected in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, while Grade 2 winner Fast Boat (fourth in the FanDuel Turf Sprint) is a serious threat in the corresponding Breeders’ Cup race.
‘Testament to the quality of racing’
“It’s a testament to the quality of the racing at Kentucky Downs,” said Marty McGee, Daily Racing Form’s veteran writer and handicapper who has observed Kentucky racing for more than 40 years. “Kentucky Downs has become such a melting pot for New York and Kentucky horses and everything else. Their success doesn’t surprise me at all.”
When Kentucky’s lawmakers approved legislation to protect historical horse racing (HHR) at the Commonwealth’s racetracks, they made their motive clear: To strengthen the entire circuit, adding jobs and increasing agribusiness and tourism dollars created by the state’s signature industry.
Kentucky Downs’ ascent has been a vital cog. Since being the first track in the state to install the innovative HHR parimutuel gaming technology in 2011, Kentucky Downs not only saw its own dramatic upward trajectory but in cooperation with its horsemen’s representative, the Kentucky HBPA, began transferring millions of dollars in purse money to the state’s other thoroughbred tracks.
A steady exodus of stables was stemmed and reversed. Now Kentucky Downs, Churchill Downs and Keeneland all are coming off record meets. Turfway Park, on life support for much of the past 20 years, will have record purses this winter. Ellis Park, which also offered record purses, has become a viable alternative to New York for Saratoga’s summer meet.
‘Linchpin’ in turnaround of KY circuit
“Kentucky Downs has been the linchpin in the turnaround of Kentucky’s year-round racing circuit,” said Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer. “From newly graded stakes races to Breeders’ Cup automatic qualifiers, it’s checking all the boxes as Kentucky continues its rise to the top year-round circuit in the country. It has ushered in a new era of cooperation among all of Kentucky’s racetracks and has even shared some of its largesse with other tracks in the form of increased purse money.
“It’s exactly what the General Assembly envisioned when historical horse racing was passed in Senate Bill 120 earlier this year. Kentucky’s racing circuit continues to grow from strength to strength. More jobs, agribusiness and tourism opportunities will follow and strengthen Kentucky’s economy.”
Kentucky Downs expects to take another step forward in 2022 when it will race seven days, up from six this year and five in 2019. Next year’s dates are Sept. 1, 3, 4, 8, 10, 11 and 14.
Arnold sees Kentucky Downs just getting more graded stakes (there are six now) and upgrades. Kentucky Downs this year received its first stakes rated as high as Grade 2 in the $1 million Calumet Turf Cup and $600,000 Franklin-Simpson for 3-year-old sprinters.
The FanDuel Turf Sprint officially is a Grade 3, but Arnold said its field this year was as strong as many Grade 1 stakes. “Its grading has got to go up, I’d think, and some of the others right along with it,” he said.
Said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs’ Vice President for Racing: “Having raced only six days this year and obviously all on grass, we’re thrilled to have 13 horses in the Breeders’ Cup. We’re just sad that our Calumet Turf Cup winner Imperator is forced to miss the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
“Our goal is to achieve the status where it’s not a question of our horses winning Breeders’ Cup races but rather how many will there be each year.”
Kentucky ‘working on absolute supremacy’
McGee said the millions of dollars generated at Kentucky Downs that is transferred to the purse accounts at other in-state tracks, which have separate ownership, is unprecedented in America and maybe the world.
“Kentucky was always one of the top three or four circuits in the country,” he said. “But now it’s working on absolute supremacy…. Even Turfway — the longtime weakest link — is getting the kind of money that is going to keep a lot people home for the winter.”
Indeed, the promise of $62,000 maiden races for Kentucky-breds has motivated reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox to have a substantial division at Turfway all winter, along with having a barn for the first time at the Keeneland-owned The Thoroughbred Center off Lexington’s Paris Pike.
“It’s huge for the people in Kentucky who want to be here year-round,” Cox said of Kentucky Downs-generated purse money going to other tracks. “It does so much for the economy here in Kentucky and so many people.”
Though they are dirt horses and didn’t run at Kentucky Downs, the track has a rooting interest in unbeaten Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies favorite Echo Zulu and Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile second-choice Silver State. Both horses are co-owned by Ron Winchell, who also is co-owner and co-managing partner in Kentucky Downs with Marc Falcone.