What’s Up at Kentucky Downs

February 14, 2020

Michael Hui called it “almost an out-of-body experience” winning his first Grade 1 stakes as Zulu Alpha kicked off his 7-year-old season Jan. 25 with a two-length victory in Gulfstream Park’s $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf. The gelding had already given Hui his first $1 million win 4 1/2 months earlier in Kentucky Downs’ Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup.

“Turning for home, my nightmare was: ‘Please, don’t let them back up into him,’ because we knew he had plenty of horse,” the racehorse owner from Little Rock, Ark., said of jockey Tyler Gaffalione’s ground-saving ride throughout the 1 3/16-mile race. “There was one moment, you could see on the replay, where Tyler glanced to the outside, and he ducked inside. There was just enough room on the rail for him to go through, and when he cleared, I felt pretty good. I felt really good. He’s always had that late speed. I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“After the race, Paige asked me, ‘Did you ever think you would win anything like this?” Hui said Sunday, referring to his wife. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ We got in at a claiming level, for $30,000 (in 2010). It was more for the novelty just to have some fun and try to get an understanding of the backside. I’d always been someone who enjoyed the racetrack. When I found Mike Maker, we had some success and we struck gold. He has a keen eye and put us in position to be very fortunate to win graded-stakes races.”

What comes next for Zulu Alpha has yet to be determined. But Hui and Maker have two firm goals: Get back to Kentucky Downs and then the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland, a race in which Zulu Alpha was a frustratingly close fourth after a difficult trip last year at Santa Anita. 

“I told Mike, ‘I want to run next fall in Kentucky twice,’” Hui said. “He smiled really big and said, ‘I do, too.’ (Zulu Alpha) has earned the right where we’ll pick and choose. But the goal is to run at Kentucky Downs and run at Keeneland.”
Hui is an unabashed fan of Kentucky Downs, where Maker is the all-time winningest trainer.

“Kentucky Downs is Mike Maker’s home game, so to speak,” Hui said. “He’s had tremendous amount of success there, and it’s a very unique experience, undulating, all turf, very casual, family-oriented atmosphere. It’s just fun. It’s an experience you can’t duplicate anywhere in the United States…. I fully anticipate every horse that I own individually or in partnership to run at Kentucky Downs.”

Catching up with track co-owner Ron Winchell
Last Feb. 19, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved prominent gaming executive Marc Falcone and noted horseman and entrepreneur Ron Winchell as the new owners of Kentucky Downs, with the sale closing last March. We caught up with Winchell at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, where he was in town to watch his filly Finite capture the Silverbulletday. Finite runs back in Saturday’s Rachel Alexandra.

What are your expectations for 2020? This will be your first full year owning the track, and a lot of your planned expansion and improvements will be in place by the end of the year.

“So far it has far exceeded expectations the first year. As far as the expansion, we’re looking forward to it immensely. It started out as $15 million, went to $25 million. Now it’s probably more like $35 million. It gets bigger and better and more expensive. But we’re really looking forward to it.
“The new section that we’re building, which is about 20,000 square feet, we expect that to be open in August. Then we’re going to slow boil Phase 2 to get through the race meet. And then right after the race meet, we should finish up on Phase 2.”

Last meet, Kentucky Downs set up a temporary structure between the main building and the Finish Line Pavilion that had a unique design that was both open air in the front and yet air conditioned. That was used for one weekend. Could that come back as a permanent structure?

“We’re debating that right now, to make it more permanent. We’re getting some cost estimates on that right now, see where it takes us. The idea is to have something a little bigger and better every meet, to build on it. The experience is obviously like a country fair. Let’s try to make it a little better every time.”

The Finish Line Pavilion has gotten so popular and keeps being expanded. Even with that, on the biggest days it’s getting harder to accommodate all the horse owners who want reserved seating, especially close to the paddock and finish line.

“We’re trying to improve the experience. Obviously there were a couple of days last season when it was really hot. The tent we had last year for the VIP party, if you will, with the air conditioning was a big deal. It would have been nice to have had that carry through the meet. So we’re looking at trying to do something like that, especially for the (horse) ownership side, for a better experience. We’re going to try to keep that the whole meet. It would be a twofold purpose: Maybe owners on one side and we’ll sell tickets on the other, because it was very expensive to put up.”

Kentucky Downs applied for two additional race dates for a seven-date meet in 2020. You received one additional date. 

“Obviously we wanted just to expand on the live race meet. It was very successful. We’re probably one of the few stories where the parimutuel wagering has been increasing significantly on our race days. We wanted two more days; we got one. I was a little disappointed just to get one, to be frank. We’ll take what we can get, see how this year plays out and go to next year.”

#KyDownsGrads on display on LaDerby Preview Day

The Fair Grounds has its second-biggest day of the meet with Saturday’s Louisiana Derby Preview Day, and Kentucky Downs-raced horses will be out in full force. 

There’s no better place in southern Kentucky and the Mid-South to enjoy the simulcast of the 13-race Fair Grounds card, which includes two $400,000 divisions of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, a Kentucky Derby points race – or in this case, races. The seven stakes include the $300,000, Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra, which has proven a huge steppingstone to the Kentucky Oaks.

Here’s a look at our #KyDowns grads running Saturday at the Fair Grounds:

BLACKBERRY WINE, trained by Kentucky Downs’ 2019 co-meet leader Joe Sharp, comes into the first division (race 12) for the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star off a Fair Grounds allowance victory. Blackberry Wine was third in a Kentucky Downs maiden race in his second start last September.

FINITE, co-owned by Kentucky Downs’ co-owner Ron Winchell, started her current four-race win streak with victory in a Kentucky Downs maiden race. She has won three stakes on dirt since, including the Fair Grounds’ Silverbulletday to give Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen his 1,000th career stakes triumph. Finite faces her toughest challenge to date in unbeaten British Idiom, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and the divisional championship.

In the $150,000, Grade 3 Fair Grounds Stakes on turf: DONTBLAMEROCKET seeks his fourth victory in four starts since being claimed by A.J. Suited Racing Stable and trainer Norm Casse. Included is a victory in a Kentucky Downs starter-allowance race and the Fair Grounds’ Colonel E.R. Bradley. Gaining Ground Racing’s Brad Cox-trained FACTOR THIS, fourth in the Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, comes back in the 1 1/8-mile stakes after finishing third in the Bradley. Lothenbach Stables’ versatile CAPTIVATING MOON, third in the 2018 Dueling Grounds Derby, is entered in both the Fair Grounds and Grade 3 Mineshaft on dirt. He was fourth in the Bradley after winning the Buddy Diliberto. Also among the 14 entries: Kentucky Downs allowance winner MIDNIGHT TEA TIME; Old Friends third-place finisher SPACE MOUNTAIN; and the stakes-placed BOTSWANA, second in three Fair Grounds allowance races since fading to 10th in the Kentucky Turf Cup.

BLENDED CITIZEN, sixth in the Kentucky Turf Cup and most recently the Louisiana Stakes, goes back in the $200,000 Grade 3 Mineshaft.

Kentucky Downs starter-allowance winner FAST BOAT seeks his first stakes victory in the $100,000 Colonel Power at 5 1/2-furlongs on turf.

The $100,000 Al Stall Sr. Memorial is well-populated with Kentucky Downs horses, including Grade 3 Three Chimneys Ladies Turf runner-up MITCHELL ROAD, who is out of the same mare as adjudged 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Country House. Also in the 1 1/16-mile turf stakes: STAVE, MAY LILY, DON’T TELL MARGE, MAKEALITTLEMISCHIEF, AIFE and also-eligible AREA. Though she hasn’t raced before at Kentucky Downs, trainer Joe Sharp said after Stall entrant Quebec won last month’s Marie Krantz Memorial that the lucrative September meet is a major objective.

Monday brings a special holiday card at Oaklawn Park, including the Grade 3, $750,000 Southwest Stakes. That 1 1/16th-mile Kentucky Derby prep is expected to attract Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Golden Rod winner SILVER PROSPECTOR, who ran in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint.

Kentucky Downs on Display at the Fair Grounds

Trainer Steve Asmussen says Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Kentucky Downs maiden winner Finite “has earned everything she’s gotten,” gritting out victories in her last two starts in the Fair Grounds’ Silverbulletday and Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes after a blow-out score in Churchill’s Rags to Riches Stakes.

“What a quality filly,” Asmussen said. “She is just another really special Winchell homebred. She has earned everything she’s gotten. She’s done everything we’ve asked of her. She battled, kept in front, and we are very proud of her.”

Now comes what should be Finite’s stiffest test to date, as she faces 3-for-3 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and Eclipse Award champion British Idiom in Saturday’s $300,000, Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra. That 1 1/16-mile stakes consistently is one of the most productive preps for the Kentucky Oaks, including producing 2018 Oaks winner Monomoy Girl and 2019 heroine Serengeti Empress.

Asmussen has won the Rachel Alexandra four times, with Winchell homebreds Untapable (2014) and Summerly (2005) going on to victory in the Kentucky Oaks.

Finite gave Asmussen his 1,000th career stakes win in the Silverbulletday, making him only the third trainer to reach that lofty height, following current stakes leader Todd Pletcher and D. Wayne Lukas, the first to reach that barrier.

Making the landmark win even more poignant for Asmussen is the long-time association with the Winchell Family, whose horse for decades have gotten their earliest training at the Laredo, Texas, training center run by the trainer’s parents, Keith and Marilyn. 
“It was extremely fitting that it was accomplished with a Winchell homebred,” Asmussen said of the milestone “I think all of our success is based on family and that approach. From my parents, where they started, this is another filly that came through their program. Ron’s father, Verne, employed my father before we were doing this professionally. We feel like we are just at the tip of the iceberg with huge things in front of us.”

Via Kentucky Downs Press Release

Photos Hodges Photography

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