An eventful and memorable spring meet at Churchill Downs that included an attendance record for the Kentucky Derby; continued strength of "Downs After Dark" night racing that included the first running of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap under the lights; and weather challenges posed by severe storms, hailstones and record heat wound to a close under the historic track's permanent lights on Sunday.
The $2 million Kentucky Derby and $1 million Kentucky Oaks contributed to a positive opening week of the April 28-July 1 racing season with business levels that were among the strongest in the history of the classic races that debuted in 1875 and have been renewed annually without interruption since. But despite the strong renewals of the Derby and Oaks and the continued strength of "Downs After Dark" celebrations in the fourth year of night racing at Churchill Downs, the track's daily racing program was challenged by a decline in the average size of its race fields as competition intensified from racing states with purses supplemented by casino gambling revenues and the overall supply of racing Thoroughbreds continued its recent decline.
"It sounds like a cliché, but our Spring Meet truly offered a taste of just about everything for our on-track fans, our horsemen, jockeys and members of our racetrack team, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of all who helped us enjoy success under often challenging circumstances," said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack. "The meet's high points are clearly the continued growth and enduring attraction of both the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, two of America's great entertainment and sports events. Our 'Downs After Dark' night racing programs were wonderful as we experimented with Saturday night schedules and the inclusion of major stakes races as part of those events for the first time. And our racetrack team and horsemen displayed resilience and flexibility in the face of unusually harsh spring weather.
"Our racing team did a remarkable job in working with horsemen to present a strong daily racing product, but its work was made significantly difficult this year by the growing lure of racing at tracks in states where purses are supplemented by casino revenues -- a roster that now includes New York tracks. We deeply appreciate the loyalty and cooperation displayed by owners and trainers who strongly supported Churchill Downs racing this spring. But we continue to compete on a playing field with those tracks that is far from level and the impact of that competition becomes more evident with each racing meet."
The Kentucky Derby on May 5 established an attendance record for the second consecutive year as 165,307 fans looked on as Reddam Racing LLC's I'll Have Another rallied to edge the pace-setting Bodemeister in Kentucky Derby 138. The victory in the Derby was the first for owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez.
The attendance mark, which eclipsed the standard of 163,628 set just one year earlier, was only one highlight of a Kentucky Derby Day that registered across-the-board wagering increases.
Wagering from all-sources on the Kentucky Derby race card was a record $187 million, an increase of 13.2 percent from the 2011 total of $165.2 million. The previous record for all-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby race card totaled $175.1 million and was established in 2006.
All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby was also record setting, up 18.8 percent from 112.0 million to $133.1 million. The previous record for all-sources wagering on the Kentucky Derby race was $118.4 million and was established in 2006. On-track wagering on the Derby rose 7.1 percent from $11.5 million to $12.3 million, breaking the previous record of $12.1 million, established in 2008. On-track wagering on the Derby program increased 1.3 percent to $23.7 million.
The Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks on May 4 made history when Brereton C. Jones' homebred Believe You Can won the race under jockey Rosie Napravnik, who became the first female jockey to win America's premier race for three-year-old fillies. The winning trainer was Kentucky native J. Larry Jones, who also teamed with owner-breeder Brereton Jones to win the 2008 Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell.
Kentucky Oaks Day was also a business success as it attracted record total wagering for the second consecutive year and near-record attendance. A crowd of 112,552 -- the third-largest in history -- watched the race on an Oaks Day during which the track experienced a notable and historic brush with Mother Nature. A threat of imminent severe weather prompted track officials to temporarily evacuate the infield with three races -- including the Kentucky Oaks -- remaining on the 12-race program. The evacuation was the first in the history of the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. The worst of the weather missed Churchill Downs and the program resumed after a delay of 52 minutes.
Despite the weather, wagering from all sources on the full 12-race Kentucky Oaks Day race card totaled a record $39.9 million, an increase of 6.5 percent from the record 2011 total of $37.5 million. All-sources wagering on the Kentucky Oaks race rose 3.4 percent to $11.8 million. On-track wagering on the Oaks Day program dropped 3.7 percent to $11.6 million and betting on the Oaks race fell 12.8 percent to $2.6 million.
Weather was a major story throughout the meet, including bookend bouts with severe thunderstorms on the first and final racing days of the meet. Softball-sized hail pounded the historic track during its "Opening Night" celebration on April 28, and rough weather provided a bookend when a severe thunderstorm packing heavy rain, wind and lightning swept over the track on the evening of July 1, the closing night of the meet, and racing programs on both evenings had weather delays of nearly an hour. Three days before the latter, searing triple-digit heat prompted the cancellation of the track's racing program on June 28. It was the first heat-related cancellation in the 138-year history of Churchill Downs and its racing programs for June 29 and July 1 were moved to nighttime schedules to avoid the worst of an extended, record-shattering heat wave. The rare weather-related cancellation was the second for Churchill Downs in just over a year. The track lost a day of racing in its 2011 spring meet after a tornado roared through its stable area.
Churchill Downs had continued success with its "Downs After Dark" night racing programs, with all of its formal under-the-lights racing sessions conducted for the first time on Saturday nights. They included the second "Opening Night" party that kicked off the spring meet and Kentucky Derby Week and the first nighttime running of the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, which was also part of the Breeders' Cup's "Win and You're In" Challenge Series for the first time. The Opening Night celebration attracted 26,527 despite the hailstorm that swept over the track midway through the program, and 25,417 gathered beneath the famed Twin Spires for the Stephen Foster Handicap program, which also included three other stakes races. For the first time, all "Downs After Dark" programs included racing under the lights on June 2 and June 30, featured graded stakes races along with their distinctive dining and entertainment attractions. The June 2 program attracted 21,827 and 22,417 attended the June 30 session. Average attendance for the four "Downs After Dark" programs was 24,047.
While the spring meet's biggest events turned in strong performances despite challenges from turbulent weather, the daily racing program at the historic track joined others at tracks across America that have encountered an ongoing decline in field sizes. The 38-day racing program, shortened by one day because of the heat-related cancellation during its final week, consisted of 395 races that featured 3,048 betting interests for an average of 7.7 horses-per-race.
The previous year's spring meet, which also featured 38 racing days, featured 410 races with 3,258 betting interests and an average field of 7.9 horses per race. Churchill Downs was able to make up races lost to its lone weather-related cancellation in 2011, but the races from the lost program in 2012 could not be made up during the just-concluded session.
Purses paid during the 2012 spring meet totaled $20,890,859, with an average of $549,759 in purses paid each day. Both figures reflect a decline of 1 percent from the 2011 spring meet, which paid total purses of $21,099,187 for a daily average of $555,242.
In the "human races" of the spring meet, jockey Corey Lanerie used a stellar month of June to secure his first leading rider title at Churchill Downs. Past champions Dale Romans and Richard and Karen Papiese's Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. earned new titles as the meet's leading trainer and owner, respectively.
Romans, a 46-year-old native of Louisville, earned his ninth Churchill Downs training title, but his first since the 2006 spring meet, by saddling 23 winners during the meet. Romans had six more wins than runner-up Tom Amoss as he collected his seventh spring title. Five of his victories came in stakes races.
Also notable in the final spring meet training standings was the performance of veteran Garry Simms, whose small stable compiled a record of 7-2-0 in 10 races, which included his Grade 3 wins in the Bashford Manor and Debutante. Simms has won back-to-back runnings of the Debutante.
Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. earned 15 wins to collect its second consecutive title as leading owner. Paula Haughey's PTK LLC was second with 11 victories. The Papieses' stable won last year's crown with eight victories.