McLean: The 10 best things from 2018's racing season in Kentucky

January 09, 2019 03:25pm

I'm ready to take a look back, over our shoulders and in the rear view mirror to remember and celebrate some of the best things that happened in Kentucky’s storied world of horse racing and breeding in and during the calendar year 2018.

Feel free to interject. Or, disagree. Or nominate another deserving “occasion,” or “moment in time.” After all, it is diversity of opinion that makes the great sport of Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding the greatest challenge of them all.

So, it begins:

#10: Ellis Park Is Sold:

Back in August of 2018, it came to our attention here at The Pressbox,” that there were some real issues and problems developing at the little “Pea Patch” down in Henderson, Ky. Apparently, there were some financial stresses and strains with the ownership team led by Ron Geary. According to some, there were serious questions about the purse accounts, and whether or not other vital vendors were being paid on time. And, rumors were rampant that critical members of the management team may not be retained. The situation got so bad, in fact, that the Kentucky HBPA and others met to figure out a possible solution to the impending volcano.

Luckily for all, the Saratoga Casino and Entertainment entity — which had previously bought into the track as a minority partner — had the ability and foresight to step in and step up. The New York harness track owners moved quickly to buy out all the assets, and agreed to take over all the liabilities.

And, within a week’s time, the Kentucky Racing Commission quickly moved to ensure that the transfer of the license occurred in both a timely, and efficient manner. It was the epitome of what can happen when the private and public sector work collaboratively to do the right and most effective thing.

The move, quite frankly, saved the important country fair-like meet in Western Kentucky. And, the move, quite honestly, helped preserve the Kentucky Thoroughbred racing circuit.

Now, as the late, great Paul Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story:

Little Ellis Park — now under full authority of the Saratoga Casino and Entertainment company — is embarking on an aggressive infrastructure and grounds revitalization construction project that will give the “old gray mare” just what she needs to become the track that it once was. Several million dollars worth of improvements are being planned. A construction management company is being chosen. And, renovations are in the future.

For the first time in a long time, Ellis Park may actually have a future.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(Derby City Gaming opens in Louisville / Photo by Gene McLean)

#9: Derby City Gaming Is Announced, Built, Opened:

It was about a year ago, under gray skies and a makeshift tent, that the key members of Churchill Downs Inc. management team huddled together with some of Louisville biggest dignitaries; some members of the Kentucky Racing Commission; some members of the press; and some long-time reliable and constant friends to announce a new project would be rising from the ashes of the old site that used to house Louisville Downs.

As bulldozers and heavy construction equipment plowed the frozen ground behind him, Bill Carstanjen, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Churchill Downs, proudly displayed some architectural drawings and renderings for a new, innovative, state-of-the-art facility that would become Louisville’s first and foremost location for the operation of Historical Racing Machines and announced that the new showplace would be open sometime later in 2018.

At the same time, and, more importantly, Churchill Downs announced that the multi-million dollar investment into the facility was yet another strong commitment to Louisville; to hiring both construction and full-time employees from Jefferson County; and to reinvesting millions in its home town economy.

In doing so, Churchill Downs also sent the famed Kentucky Horse Industry a very strong and direct message as well. The gaming corporation is fully committed to making horse racing in the Commonwealth as good a product as any live Thoroughbred racing venue in the entire world.

The showplace — located on Poplar Level Road and just a few miles from Churchill Downs itself — was exactly that. There was glitz. There were lights. There were bells and whistles blaring all over. The Historic Racing Machines were alive with the sound of musical jingles.

And, the new place began churning money for both Churchill Downs and the purse accounts immediately. The impact has been so dramatic, in fact, that Caesar’s — which owns a casino just across the Ohio River in New Albany — announced at a Kentucky racing commission meeting later in the year that Derby City Gaming was having a serious and considerable impact on the gaming market throughout the region, and that the new venture had shattered previous estimates on how much wagering could and can be generated through this type of racing product.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(Monomoy Girl headed to the winner’s circle after the 2018 Kentucky Oaks / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

#8: Monomoy Girl:

Over the past several years, we have been blessed by having some of the best Thoroughbred fillies and mares in the history of the sport to race in our midst; in front of our eyes; into the record books of this great sport and game.

Songbird. Beholder. Zenyatta. Rachel Alexandra. Enable. Winx.

Before that?

How about Personal Ensign, Winning Colors, Go For Wand, Ruffian, Genuine Risk.

So very many.

In 2018, we were blessed with yet another who should fit firmly into that grouping of greats: Monomoy Girl.

As a 2-year-old in 2017, she was spectacular. She won three of four starts, including the Rags to Riches Stakes at Churchill Downs. Her only loss came in a head-bob second in the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes. She stamped herself as a horse to watch, for sure.

And, oh did we watch in 2018.

She won the Grade 2 Rachel Alexnadra Stakes at the Fair Grounds in her first start of the year, on Feb. 17. She came back to win the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 7. She followed that with a gutsy, gritty, bumping, driving, theatrical win from the outside post position in the Kentucky Oaks over a determined Wonder Gadot.

A month later, she won the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park, and about six weeks later captured the Grade 1 Coaching Club of American Oaks at famed Saratoga.

The only blemish came in the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx in Philadelphia on Sept. 22. Oh, don’t ever forget. Never forget. She finished that race in front. Again. The stewards though were the only ones that could beat her, and did so that day, disqualifying the great filly from first to second.

But redemption came. On Nov. 3, Monomoy Girl proved to the world — once more — how special she truly was in 2018 and truly is to this day. Against a stellar field, she dominated the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs.

With head held high, no one could take this moment and this championship away.

Her brilliance was so spectacular, in fact, that at year’s end she was in the Top 3 for the prestigious “Horse of the Year” Eclipse Award consideration.

Simply put, Monomoy Girl — with 9 wins and 2 seconds on her illustrious scorecard — is one of the best fillies and mares ever. And, we got to witness, watch, wager, and be wowed.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(Photo Courtesy of Kentucky Downs)

#7: Kentucky Downs Sells to Thoroughbred Owner Ron Winchell & Others:

Much like the eventual sale of Ellis Park, The Pressbox was the first publication that broke the story about the impending sale of Kentucky Downs, the all-turf track located just south of Bowling Green and near the Tennessee border.

We first heard of the possible news in September, just as the track’s elaborate five-day race meet was about to begin. We did all of our due diligence to collaborate and confirm that in fact that the track — which was the first to introduce the idea and the games of Historical Racing to the Commonwealth — was on the market.

We contacted numerous persons close to the situation. We identified several possible suitors. And, we tracked the hiring of a consulting firm that was engaged to locate and vet out several possible parties.

What did we discover?

Sure enough, the track was for sale — even though some argued that it was not. And, despite those claims to the contrary by some of the track’s upper echelon officials, sure enough it sold.

The track brought a handsome price, for sure. Reportedly, the track and all of its’ amenities, property and other belongings went for a sum North of $160 million. Not bad for a track that was near bankruptcy when the heady team of Corey Johnson, Ray Reid, Bill Casner, Nick Hughes and other serious investors purchased the track about a decade ago.

But what makes this transaction so attractive to the long-term success of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Racing Circuit is the buyer. The sale brought into the racetrack ownership fold a very attractive name, as well — Ron Winchell.

Winchell is a longtime owner of classy Thoroughbred runners. He learned the game from his father, Verne Winchell, who made fame and fortune in the donut business in California decades ago, and later merged his business with this little company known as Denny’s. The senior Winchell took some of his money and invested in the horses. And, the elder Winchell found that he was just as good at breeding, buying, racing Thoroughbreds as he was at selling Boston Cremes, glazed and chocolate dipped.

The Winchells bought a horse by the name of Tapit as a yearling in 2002. Two months later, Verne Winchell passed. Tapit was the last horse that Verne Winchell ever purchased.

But what a horse. He won the Wood Memorial, the final prep before the 2004 Kentucky Derby. And, try as he might to get his late father the Kentucky Derby victory that never happened, Tapit and Ron Winchell couldn’t do it. They ran ninth in the “Run for the Roses.”

Yet, the great Tapit’s greatest exploits were to come some time later. In the breeding shed. And, for the past decade, he has elevated to become of the one best stallions in the history of the game. At the same time, Ron Winchell has become one of the best owners in the game. Just a year ago, his great Gun Runner ran off to win the Pegasus World Cup on his way to the breeding shed at Three Chimney’s Farm in Versailles.

Now, Winchell — who owns and operates about 18 “slots parlors” in Las Vegas, as well — will try his golden touch in the racetrack business. In Kentucky. And, he is a welcomed site.

The man knows horses. Examples galore. The man knows gaming. His operations in the world’s most competitive environment are proof positive and successful. And, the man obviously knows business. Soon after the acquisition, Winchell announced that he and his team would be spending a considerable amount of cash to improve, expand, and better market Kentucky Downs — a small track success story, for sure; but a story whose final chapters have yet to be written and a story that can become bigger and better, without doubt.

With Ron Winchell at the controls now, the writing has fully begun. And, the future is truly bright.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

# 6: American Pharoah Yearlings Gather Attention, Top Dollars, Many Headlines:

While we still await the first son or daughter of the great American Pharoah to make their first career start, which will happen sometime in this calendar year, the impact of the now 7-year-old stallion on the game, the sport and the industry continues to amaze.

Yet again, American Pharoah was an amazing racehorse.

The first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, American Pharoah captured the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 2015. Later that year, he became the first horse ever to complete the “Grand Slam” when he ran off to a spectacular win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in November.

Before that, the son of Pioneerof the Nile was the Eclipse Champion 2-year-old in 2014, having won back-to-back Grade 1 races by a combined margin of eight lengths.

Ever since, people have flocked to Coolmore’s stallion operation in Versailles, Ky. Some to just get a glimpse at greatness and history. Others come, baring gifts from afar — like some of the top mares in the world of Thoroughbred breeding.

In 2018, American Pharoah continued his dominant run through the Horse Industry. His first crop of yearlings finally made it to the marketplace. One sold for $2.2 million. Another for $1.6 million. Another for $1.4 million. Two more for $1.2 million. Another for $1 million. The list went on and on.

The Thoroughbred breeding operations are vital economic engines for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Millions of dollars are spent on stud fees. Millions more are spent on boarding, veterinarians, fee companies, farriers, transportation and all the other necessities that go along with owning a horse.

The Thoroughbred Sales companies are critically important to the state and the industry, as well. Each year, customers flock to both Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton to try and buy the next great champion; the next American Pharoah.

What American Pharoah has done to promote all of that activity may never be fully measured. Both in terms of publicity, notoriety, fame, and marketing, and in real dollars from stud fees and sales of off-spring. But what American Pharoah has done both on the track and in the industry can be wrapped up in a simple word or two. Amazing. Impactful. Dramatic.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(The Louisville Thoroughbred Society had its’ official “Ground Breaking Ceremony” in 2018. Construction is now fully underway, and the private membership club located on East Main Street in downtown Louisville is expected to be open for full operation in 2019 / Photos by Holly M. Smith)

#5: Louisville Thoroughbred Society Breaks Ground

When we came up with the idea of creating a private membership club dedicated to providing first class amenities, service and posh accommodations for those interested in Thoroughbred racing and breeding industries and decided to build such a place in downtown Louisville, some people laughed.

A modern day mountain of dreams? Build it and they will come? A gigantic leap of faith, or stupidity?

Well, some times dreams do come true.

In 2018, the “Louisville Thoroughbred Society” took a giant leap forward.

In October, the “LTS” hosted its’ “Ground Breaking Ceremony” at the historic Hughes Building at 209 East Main Street in downtown Louisville with an invitation-only Open House. We didn’t know how many people would show up. We didn’t know how the historic building would look, although we did our very best to dress “her” up. We didn’t know what the response would be. Simply put, we just didn’t know.

Now, we know.

The crowd, which exceeded all expectations and estimations, was standing room only. Especially when Steve Buttleman, who plays the “Call to the Post” at Churchill Downs each race day, stood in front of the crowd and played “My Old Kentucky Home.” Most in the group of over 200 started to sing the lyrics. It never sounded any better.

The excitement and thrill in the room exceeded all expectations and estimations. It was chill bump time as family, friends, acquaintances, and newcomers alike strolled through the historic structure and came back with applause.

The reception for the reception exceeded all expectations and estimations. There were community leaders in attendance. There were horse racing owners and breeders in the room. There were racetrack owners and decision-makers there. There were fans excited to be there.

It was just the “juice” we needed and the affirmation that we sought to continue building the facility; to continue designing the future of horse racing; to dreaming of a bigger, brighter, and more exciting tomorrow.

By 2018 year’s end, all 30 shares in the project had been sold. The first “Investor Members” meeting will be held in January of 2019. The first Board of Directors will be elected.

By the end of January, a full marketing and “Individual Membership” Drive will be created and launched. It is our plan to have a minimum of half of our projected membership roll signed up by Derby day..

By the end of April 2019, we will host our first “Kentucky Derby Party” in conjunction with the Ice House, located next door, and we will provide individual tours of the new project to give prospective members a good look of what will soon be inside.

Before the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, we project to be open for business. Full bore. Just like the great Justify in the final strides of the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

If you are interested in joining with us on this amazing carpet ride, check out our website at thelouisvillethoroughbredsociety.com. Go to the link for membership. Join us. Today.

It will be fun.

And…

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(The grand Enable, two time winner of the Arc de Triomphe in France, wins the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs in November. What a magnificent filly. Photos by Holly M. Smith)

#4: Enable Comes to the Kentucky & Wins the Breeders’ Cup Turf:

The ground may not have been the absolute best for her at Churchill Downs. After all, determined and consistent rains had dampened the course all week, turning much of the sod into a back-yard slip and slide.

The new, counter-clockwise direction in which she had to run may not have been her customary right-turns only approach to racing. After all, she had never run before in North America, where we make only left-hand bends.

And, the timing of the race may not have been ideal on the calendar. After all, she had just dominated and won her second Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, and going into the 2018 Breeders’ Cup no previous winner of that glamorous and prestigious race had ever come back to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf. And, believe me, there have been some great ones in the past to have tried.

But it didn’t matter. None of those excuses in waiting mattered.

Not to the great filly Enable.

Just as she has proven before, she was more than able.

Directed into the middle of course for her patented, late, stretch run by jockey Frankie Dettori, Enable found her feet and her normal burst of energy and speed. And, she easily put away her opposition of colts and geldings as if they were yearlings and weanlings. She found her class. Yet, again.

After the race, Enable’s fabulous trainer John Gosden said:

“She’s been very brave and mentally very strong to get herself here. She did it here today with guts and determination.”

Many thanks to Mr. Gosden and Enable’s breeder/owner Juddmonte Farms for bringing this stylish 4-year-old filly to America to run in our industry’s championship day of racing. They didn’t need to. They didn’t have to. Yet, they did.

And, it gave us all a chance to watch and witness one of the most remarkable runners of our lifetime.

Afterwards, Dettori, one of the more flamboyant and talented riders in the world today, remarked:

“I knew (Enable) was fighting for me,” he said. “Ryan (Moore, the rider on Magical) wasn’t going away, was always there. The ground kind of spoiled it for my filly, because I know she likes soft (going), but she really found it difficult. She had every chance of throwing the towel in, but she didn’t. She was very tough. Just look at the space we left till the third. She’s a superstar.”

A superstar, indeed. A super day, for sure. A super moment in time.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

#3: Keeneland/Churchill Downs to Build, Own, Operate New Track in Oak Grove:

It took awhile. Over a year, in fact. But good things do happen to those that wait. Right?

In this case, it did.

In fact, the right thing happened to those that waited.

In November 2018, well over a year after an application had first been submitted for consideration, the Kentucky Racing Commission finally and appropriately awarded a new Standardbred racetrack license for the City of Oak Grove.

And, the Commission did absolutely the right thing in awarding the highly contested new venue license and live race dates to the ones that began the entire process by submitting the original application — a new business entity comprised of and by two of the world’s most prestigious and successful Thoroughbred racing institutions in Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

The new development complex — which will include a new track, grandstands, clubhouse, Historical Racing venue, a hotel, commercial development, an amphitheater, and overnight boarding for horses at completion — will undergo construction in the first quarter of 2019.

It is expected that the new track will be able to race live dates before the end of the calendar year.

And, given the history and reputation of the new license holder?

I think you can expect the project to be ready — with a state-of-the-art, artful, and wonderful facility that will compliment the entire Kentucky racing circuit and create new racing opportunities for the Standardbred industry, and much-needed purse money for both the Standardbred owners, breeders, trainers and the Thoroughbred races, as well.

From the beginning of the review and license process for this new venture, there was much angst created by the owners of Kentucky Downs, and, ultimately, Blue Grass Downs in Paducah — who both submitted bids and proposals only after the Keeneland/Churchill Downs application was over a year old and had been sitting idly on the desk of the Chairman of the Commission.

The tracks claimed that a new track and Historical Racing Machine venue in the market would diminish their current business and ultimately injure the entire industry — although none of those irrational arguments were ever substantiated by third-party, independent studies.

The tracks claimed that if a new license was to be issued, that they should be the ones to receive preferential consideration — although their respective applications both paled in side-by-side comparisons.

In the end, though, the Kentucky Racing Commission — which went through a pains-taken, arduous and lengthly open meeting review process and gave all three applicants plenty of time and space for presentations — came to the right ultimate decision.

No state in the country has two finer racing institutions — with a history of conducting first class racing events — than Keeneland and Churchill Downs. No other tracks in the world have conducted live and simulcasting of Thoroughbred racing any better, or with more historical significance. No other tracks standing and operating today have built bigger; maintained more; and done as much.

And, now they will be able to expand in a whole new way. A way that is sure to help all.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(Breeders’ Cup 2018 through the eye and lens of the wonderful equine photographer Holly M. Smith)

#2: Breeders’ Cup Held at Churchill Downs:

The rains of November try as they might could not dampen the spirit of the first weekend in November. Like it has before, over and over, the glory of watching and witnessing some of the greatest athletes in the entire world won out. Just as the sun finally poked his warmer disposition out, as well.

There was the brilliant Accelerate capturing the Breeders’ Cup Classic — and giving his trainer John Sadler that first, long-awaited win in a Breeders’ Cup race.

There was the amazing Monomoy Girl winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff over a heralded field of fillies and mares. Too much. Too good. Too fast.

There was the great Enable. Spectacular Enable.

There was Game Winner doing what he always does — winning. He captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for trainer Bob Baffert and stamped himself as a prime Kentucky Derby hopeful..

There was Tim Glyshaw saying goodbye to his grand Indiana-bred Bucchero, who just couldn’t pull off that magical carpet ride in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

There was the ole’ ball coach — D. Wayne Lukas — saddling Bravazo for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. He ran his eyeballs out, like he always does.

There was young Chad Summers tightening the girth on the amazing New York-bred Mind Your Biscuits, who had been converted from fabulous sprinter to a Breeders’ Cup Classic contender.

There were celebrations and flying dismounts, thanks to Dettori.

There were tears of joy mixed with sadness, as some had to say goodbye to long-time friends, companions who were soon to be retiring to breeding duties.

And, there was Churchill Downs. Those majestic Twin Spires pointing to the heavens, as they always do. A sign of days gone by. A sign of days gone too fast. A sign of brighter days to come.

The track conditions fair and sound — and each racing horse came home just as safe as it went into the fray.

The stands clean and inviting to each fan that arrived.

The suites and boxes dressed to the nines, like the beautiful people they housed.

The food good. The drinks spirited. The service impeccable.

One thing is for sure in this world of unsure. Churchill Downs knows how to throw a party. And, they did it again on the first weekend in November.

And, to all that made the journey?

Churchill Downs put on one helluva show for the 2018 edition of the Breeders’ Cup.

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

(Photos of Justify through the lens of Holly Smith)

#1: Justify:

Going into the 2018 Kentucky Derby, much was said, written and made of the “Apollo Curse.” And, to be honest, rightfully so.

You see, no horse had been able to win the Kentucky Derby without having run a single race as a 2-year-old since Apollo pulled off the trick in the year 1882.

1882.

There had been 135 runnings of the Kentucky Derby since then, and not a single winner had managed to win the world’s most prestigious race without having made a start as a 2-year-old.

135.

Thus, it was called the “Apollo Curse.”

But this past May, a big, strapping, a bit sullied, chestnut colt rolled into town. Undefeated as a 3-year-old. Top trainer in Bob Baffert. Hall of Fame rider in Mike Smith. And dominating winner of the Santa Anita Derby.

By any standard, and by all measure a worthy and formidable favorite for the “Run for the Roses,” don’t you think? After all, he’s big. He’s striking. He’s undefeated. And, he is a monster on the racetrack.

And, unraced as a 2-year-old.

History meet your newest challenger.

On the first Saturday in May, and in a deluge of historic rains, “The Challenger” won.

History was defeated.

Justify had beaten 19 other brash and promising 3-year-olds — who some called, at the time, one of the best groups to be assembled for the Kentucky Derby in years. And, he had beaten “The Curse.”

The “Apollo Curse” was crushed.

But it was just the beginning. Two weeks later, Justify — after having a master blacksmith fly in from Florida with a magical glue-on shoe — tap-danced to victory in the Preakness Stakes.

Three weeks after that, Justify dominated the Belmont Stakes to become to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown — one of the most difficult things to accomplish in the history of any sport, at any time.

Although Justify never raced again, he retired as the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history.

History was made by the same horse that had crushed in just a few weeks earlier.

Justify came back to Churchill Downs later to parade over the track where he launched his Triple Crown dominance. People jammed the paddock for a look, and ran to the track for photos. The big red head had become a super star in a sport needing and looking for super stars.

He would perform the same ritual at racetracks in California. The ownership group gracious with their time and money to help promote the horse’s premature exit from the game that he came so quickly to dominate and control.

Yet, at year’s end, some voters for the Eclipse Award as “Horse of the Year” started to speculate and capitulate on their votes. Would they cast their vote for the great Justify? Or would they pivot and vote for Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate?

Sad really.

Just a few years ago, before American Pharoah was able to capture the first Triple Crown since Affirmed did it last in 1978, many of these same people speculated that there may never be another Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport.

The game had changed, they cried.

Trainers want more time in-between starts now, they excused.

The demands are simply too much; too soon; too severe.

Justify not only overcame all that, he shattered the “Apollo Curse” — which was 135 years in the making.

My only thought now?

Curses to those that don’t vote for Justify as the “Horse of the Year.” He may just be the “Horse of a Lifetime.”

And…

That is a very good thing. For Kentucky Racing. And, all those that make a living in it.

 

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Meet Gene McLean

The Pressbox is your source for news, handicapping and interviews with the industry's biggest stars. Gene McLean is the Founder of The Pressbox and The Louisville Thoroughbred Society. No one in this industry has more talent in reviewing, forecasting and handicapping.




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