Keeneland's May 22 announcement of a short summer race meet from July 8-12, pending expected approval from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Dates Committee, was met with enthusiasm by leading trainers.
Less than 24 hours after the track's stakes schedule was revealed, several horsemen indicated they planned to run horses in some of the 10 graded stakes planned there over the summer, including the $600,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and $400,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1), both July 11. The stakes will fill a void left by the cancellation of the Lexington track's spring meet due to COVID-19.
Asked for his reaction to the five-day meeting, trainer Kenny McPeek offered a short response.
"Can we do it every year?" he joked.
McPeek has three horses under consideration for the 1 1/16-mile Ashland, a major qualifier for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs Sept. 4: Envoutante, Impeccable Style, and Swiss Skydiver. Envoutante and Swiss Skydiver both breezed at Churchill Downs May 23.
"I would like to win another Ashland," said McPeek, who won it in 2002 with Take Charge Lady and in 2014 with Rosalind.
Peter Callahan's Swiss Skydiver, who leads the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 210 qualifying points after winning the Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) and Fantasy Stakes (G3), is slotted to run in the June 6 Santa Anita Oaks (G2), McPeek said.
The Ashland could also lure a filly such as Bonny South, who has been training at Keeneland for trainer Brad Cox and owner/breeder Juddmonte Farms since winning the Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) March 21.
Michael Hui's Zulu Alpha, one of the top long-distance turf horses in the country and the winner of the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes Presented by Runhappy (G1T), is aimed toward the $175,000 TVG Elkhorn Stakes (G2T) July 12 by trainer Mike Maker.
Trainer Wesley Ward has his eye on two other stakes that were rescheduled from the scrapped spring meet. He mentioned the $100,000 Beaumont Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select (G3) July 10 as a possibility for Kimari and the $150,000 Shakertown Stakes (G2) July 11 as a race for Bound for Nowhere.
"Whatever horse I have in whatever jurisdiction, I'm going to pull them to run there if they fit a condition just because Keeneland is my favorite track, even more so than Ascot," the trainer said. "I love Keeneland. I love to win here. I love to compete here. They've been so good to me for 15 years now."
Along with several of his 2-year-olds, both horses are also considered for races next month at Royal Ascot.
Though the placement of the summer meet at Keeneland avoids direct conflict with Saratoga Race Course, which begins July 16, the track will face competition for stakes horses from other tracks that had to amend their schedules because of COVID-19. Churchill Downs was one of the first tracks to make a dramatic adjustment, moving its Kentucky Derby-week stakes races to the first week of September, capped by the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) Sept. 5. Other tracks have since scrambled to line up major races.
A condensed period for prep races means Keeneland will face competition for stakes horses from nearby tracks, some of which are running stakes within weeks or days of the summer meet.
The $300,000 Indiana Derby (G3) and $200,000 Indiana Oaks (G3) at Indiana Grand Race Course, located 2 1/2 hours away, are both July 8, three days before the Blue Grass and Ashland.
"It's not going to be perfect this year by any stretch of the imagination. It just isn't," said Ben Huffman, the racing secretary at Churchill Downs and Keeneland. "Everyone's calendars are condensed, and we're all doing the best we can. It's a challenge, but, knock on wood, hopefully we'll never experience a year like this year because of this pandemic."
The Blue Grass and Ashland offer double the purses of the competing stakes in Indiana, though even they are not what they were in the spring. The Blue Grass was slashed from $1 million, and the Ashland dropped from $500,000. Most stakes experienced cuts.
Keeneland cited a loss of on-track revenue—no spectators will be permitted this summer as a safety precaution—as a contributing factor for the cuts. The track averaged 15,159 fans over 16 race days last spring.
The track also supplements its purses with revenue from its horse auctions and from the slot-like historical horse racing terminals that it operates in partnership at The Red Mile harness track in Lexington. HHR facilities have not been open over the past couple of months due to COVID-19.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has the deepest stable of 3-year-olds in the country, thinks one of his colts could race in the Blue Grass.
"Gotta be there with something, right?" he said.
He said he had not given any thought whether he would run a colt in the Blue Grass after the June 20 Belmont Stakes (G1). Given a common preference for stakes horses to have four to six weeks of rest between starts, the three-week time frame between the Belmont and Blue Grass is not ideal, particularly with races such as the Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1), Derby, and Preakness Stakes (G1) still to come in the summer or fall.
Another of his stable stars, Authentic, is aimed for the $400,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1) June 6, five weeks before the Blue Grass.
Or Baffert could look farther down his Santa Anita Park shedrow to put a horse like graded winner Thousand Words on a plane to Kentucky. That colt resumed breezing May 23 with a half-mile workout in :49 1/5 at Santa Anita, his first since an 11th-place finish in the Oaklawn Stakes April 11 at Oaklawn Park.
"I'm confident Keeneland will get a very good representation of the 3-year-old crop," Huffman said. "It's Keeneland. It's Kentucky. It's something different. It's something unique. I don't know for sure, but I'm anticipating this little five-day race meet to be a huge success."
Huffman expects to complete work on a Keeneland condition book in about a week after finalizing one for the second half of the Churchill Downs meet. He said he does not yet know precise levels for non-stakes purses at Keeneland.
Bob Elliston, Keeneland's vice president of racing and sales, said in a release distributed Friday that purses for maiden special weight and allowance races would be reduced from 2020 spring meet levels.