A dazzling farewell victory by popular classic winner Shackleford and jockey Jesus Castanon in the 138th running of the Grade 1 Clark Handicap provided an exclamation point as arguably the brightest moment of Churchill Downs' memorable 21-day fall meet that concluded Sunday.
The victory served as a fitting conclusion to the career of the flashy chestnut Shackleford, trained by Louisville, Kentucky native Dale Romans. Shackleford compiled a 6-5-1 record in 20 starts and the Clark's first prize of $266,054 pushed his career earnings to $3,090,101. Shackleford's triumph also provided Romans with a rare fall meet double one day after winning the 97th running of the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving Day with Afleeting Lady, a five-year-old half-sister to the Clark winner.
The wins were highlights of a spectacular fall meet for Romans, who saddled 14 winners during the October 28-November 25 racing session to earn a tie with Ken McPeek for the meet's "leading trainer" title. It was the 10th training title for Romans at his hometown track and his third fall crown, while McPeek earned his second local title. Romans has won 576 races at his hometown track and trails only to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, the all-time Churchill Downs win leader with 667 victories.
But the 21-day racing session was far from "The Dale Romans Show" as it featured stellar performances by jockey Corey Lanerie, who followed his breakthrough spring meet riding title with a fall meet title, and rising two-year-old star Uncaptured, who swept the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club and Grade 3 Iroquois for trainer Mark Casse and emerged as a major contender for next spring's 139th Kentucky Derby. Fans affirmed their love for "Downs After Dark" night racing as the meet's lone session of racing under the lights lured a fall record crowd, and they cheered during an on-track salute to Kentucky-based heroes of the Breeders' Cup World Championships one week after the two days of that distinctly Kentucky-flavored competition at Santa Anita.
Churchill Downs also celebrated a significant milepost on Thanksgiving Day when the historic track ran its 50,000th race. The first of those races was run on May 17, 1875 when the track then known as the Louisville Jockey Club opened with a racing program that featured the first running of the Kentucky Derby. The 50,000th race, a one-mile turf allowance that was the day's 10th race, was won by Kris Royal.
Along with the track's outstanding racing program highlighted by a stakes schedule headed by the historic Clark Handicap and its pair of popular "Stars of Tomorrow" cards devoted exclusively to races for two-year-olds, Churchill Downs offered a strong daily racing product notable for ample field size throughout the 21-day meet. A total of 2,104 horses competed in the meet's 219 races for an average field of 9.61 horses-per-race. That's up from the 2011 fall meet, which had an average field size of 9.38.
Purses paid during the meet totaled $8,893,694, an average of $423,513 paid daily. The purse total last year was $8,331,752 and daily average purses were $438,513.
The popularity of "Downs After Dark" night racing in any season was underscored on Saturday, November 18 when 15,926 fans enjoyed racing under the lights during the lone nighttime session. The attendance figure was 1.3 percent larger than the 15,719 who attended a "Downs After Dark" session on a Friday evening during the 2011 fall meet. Total mutuel handle for the evening was $7,400,293, an increase of 23.5 percent from the same date in 2011, and the third-largest wagering total in 18 "Downs After Dark" or "Opening Night" racing sessions. Off-track wagering totaled $6,289,007 -- an increase of 23.6 percent from the same racing date in 2011 -- and on-track handle rose to $1,111,385, an increase of 23.1 percent from a year earlier.
"Our Fall Meet is always a fast-moving treasure, and our 21 days of racing were packed with wonderful performances on the track by horses and humans, another testament from fans to the allure of 'Downs After Dark' night racing, a high quality daily racing product with great food, fun and entertainment for our patrons during their visits to Churchill Downs," said Kevin Flanery, President of Churchill Downs. "Our fans got a taste of the new Paddock Plaza and their feedback on that venue was positive and enthusiastic. We look forward to the Plaza becoming a very popular spot for Kentucky Derby and Oaks Week and other special events in 2013.
"It was a satisfying meet on many levels, as we continue to navigate a challenging competitive environment. We greatly appreciate the support of fans who wagered on Churchill Downs races at the track, online through TwinSpires.com or at simulcast centers around the nation, and we sincerely thank the owners, trainers and jockeys who continue to support and sustain our daily racing program and stakes schedule."
While the popular Clark victory by Shackleford, which resulted in a loud and appreciative response from the crowd on the colt's return to the winner's circle, was clearly one of the meet's racing highlights, it was far from the only spectacular moment.
Uncaptured grabbed the hearts and attention of many racing fans with his two distinctly different victories in the Iroquois and Kentucky Jockey Club. The son of 2004 Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart was an emphatic 5 1/2-length winner in the former, but was a gritty and determined winner in the latter when he turned back Frac Daddy to win the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club under jockey Miguel Mena. In the latter, Uncaptured scored his first points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" system that will determine eligibility for the 20 starting spots in next spring's 139th running of the Kentucky Derby.
But in terms of pure drama, the wins by Shackleford and Uncaptured might have to defer to the riveting finish in the Grade 3 Cardinal Handicap on the Matt Winn Turf Course on November 10. Front-running Daisy Devine, ridden by Calvin Borel, turned back Julie's Love after a stretch-long duel to win by a head. Trainer Andrew McKeever's four-year-old daughter of Kafwain won for the eighth time in 15 races and posted a stakes-record winning time of 1:47.81 for the 1 1/8 miles on firm turf.
Another contender for most exciting finish was the narrow victory by Brushed by a Star over Joyful Victory in the Grade 2 Chilukki on November 3. Those rivals dueled through the stretch in that one-mile race on dirt, with Brushed by a Star and Lanerie finishing in front of Joyful Victory and Robby Albarado by the official margin of a head.
Claiborne Farm, the legendary Paris, Kentucky., breeding and racing institution, won a pair of stakes events in partnership with Adele Dilschneider to pull within one of Calumet Farm, another Bluegrass breeding and racing icon, in total stakes wins at Churchill Downs. An impressive victory in the Pocahontas by the two-year-old filly Sign got Claiborne and Dilschneider off to a quick start on the meet's opening day, and the three-year-old Lea won the Grade 3 Commonwealth Turf later in the meet. Claiborne Farm has now won 31 stakes races at Churchill Downs, a list that includes the 1984 Kentucky Derby victory by Swale.
Other notable stakes performances during the four-week meet included a comfortable victory by Centre Court in the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere for three-year-old fillies on turf; a late-running triumph by 30-1 shot Keep Up as the five-year-old son of Unbridled's Song out of 1998 Kentucky Oaks winner Keeper Hill rallied from 10th to take the Grade 3 River City Handicap for older horses on turf on closing day; and a longshot triumph by Canadian import Seaneen Girl, a recent purchase by owner Naveed Chowhan, in the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes for two-year-old fillies at odds of 31-1. Seaneen Girl provided veteran trainer Bernie Flint with his second Golden Rod win in her first start for her new barn. A stretch-running win by Neck 'n Neck in the Grade 3 Ack Ack established the three-year-old as a contender for the Clark Handicap, but the son of Flower Alley was knocked out of the latter by injury.
Tops among performances by the fall meet's human stars was the riding title by Lanerie, who entered 2012 without a riding crown at Churchill Downs but will ring out the year with a sweep of its spring and fall championships. The 38-year-old Louisiana native won 29 races, five more than Shaun Bridgmohan, who was also runner-up to Lanerie in the spring. During the meet Lanerie became only the 19th jockey to register 400 career wins at Churchill Downs when he guided the two-year-old Pushthebuttonmax to victory in a maiden special weight race on November 9.
Mena, who won 19 races to finish fourth in the race for leading rider, closed the meet in impressive style by sweeping its final three stakes races. He was aboard Seaneen Girl in the Golden Rod, Uncaptured in the Kentucky Jockey Club and Keep Up in the River City. Mena also piloted Uncaptured to victory in the Iroquois on the meet's opening day.
While the race for leading trainer ended in the McPeek-Romans dead-heat, Al Stall Jr. saddled 11 winners to finish a clear third. Stall's wins included the wins by Sign in the Pocahontas and Lea in the Commonwealth Turf.
The race for leading owner finished in a four-way tie. Brad Kelley's Bluegrass Hall LLC; Claiborne Farm and Dilschneider; Susan McPeek and partners' Magdalena Racing; and Gary and Mary West each collected four Fall Meet wins.
One of the meet's most impressive individual equine performances was a record-setting 7 1/4-length victory by Infrattini in a one-mile allowance race on Thanksgiving Day. The four-year-old gelded son of Include, trained by Louisville native Paul McGee, covered distance over a fast track in 1:33.31 to surpass the previous of record winning time of 1:33.57 set by Chilukki in the 2000 running of the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Distaff.
A main track record that had endured for 70 years tumbled during the meet's "Downs After Dark" program when three-year-old Tritap won an allowance race at 1 3/16 miles -- a distance rarely offered at Churchill Downs. Tritap, ridden by Bridgmohan and trained by Steve Asmussen, covered the distance over a fast track in 1:58.12. The time eclipsed the previous standard of 1:58.60 established by the five-year-old gelding Bonnie Andrew on November 14, 1942.
While the on-track action was impressive, fans had other reasons to celebrate during the meet's 21-day run.
Kentucky-based horses and connections who were victorious in the Breeders' Cup World Championships were saluted in an on-track celebration on Sunday, November 11. Breeders' Cup champions who paraded in the paddock that afternoon included Classic winner Fort Larned; Mile winner Wise Dan; Filly & Mare Sprint winner Groupie Doll; and Turf winner Little Mike. Connections present for the day included owner Janis Whitham, trainer Ian Wilkes and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. (Fort Larned); trainer Charles Lopresti (Wise Dan); owner-breeder Fred Bradley and trainer William "Buff" Bradley (Groupie Doll); Romans (Little Mike); Jack Wolf and Ed Glasscock of Starlight Partners (owner of Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby). Also honored, though not present, were trainers D. Wayne Lukas (Juvenile Sprint winner Hightail) and Asmussen (Dirt Mile winner Tapizar).
The historic track and its fans said farewell on closing day to veteran sprinter Ready's Rocket, whose 11 career wins at Churchill Downs is a modern-day record at the track. Competing mostly in claiming races, Ready's Rocket compiled a career record of 20-10-13 in 74 races with earnings of $261,636. His success in starter allowance races, with 10 of his 11 local wins coming under jockey Calvin Borel, made him a fan favorite. The nine-year-old is retiring to Old Friends Farm near Georgetown, Kentucky.
With its 2012 racing year now concluded, Churchill Downs looks ahead to 2013, during which it will conduct three separate racing meets for the first time in the track's long history. Churchill Downs received permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to conduct a third meet in September, with includes 12 racing days with an option for four additional racing days. The track will conduct a total of 72 racing days in 2013, with the inaugural September meet running from September 6-29, a spring meet set for April 27-June 30 and the fall meet, which will run from October 27-November 30.