LOUISVILLE — Though rich in tradition, the Kentucky Thoroughbred racing circuit had in recent years developed some impossible-to-ignore weak spots that tested the loyalty of horsemen and threatened the livelihoods of those who depend on viable year-round options.
With its declining purses and non-existent stakes schedule, Turfway Park's September dates had become a target for such harsh criticism that a need for meaningful change became necessary.
The new venture designed to shore up that lapse will commence Friday, as storied Churchill Downs holds what is believed to be its first full September meeting, a 12-date lineup that has its participants energized by the money up for the taking this time of season.
Upon the urging of Kentucky Horse Racing Commission officials and horsemen last fall, Churchill applied for and was approved to take over the September dates from beleaguered Turfway, which slashed all its September stakes and offered average daily purses of just $97,000 for its corresponding meeting last year.
Bolstered by its typically strong Kentucky Derby week returns, Churchill by contrast is slated to offer $407,000 in average daily purses this month. An additional sweetener for horsemen is the fact that Saturday marks the first of Kentucky Downs' five September dates over its European-style turf course, with the Franklin track offering $900,000 in average daily purses thanks to its Instant Racing-fueled revenue.
Support for each track was evident with full fields filling Kentucky Downs' 10-race opening-day lineup and strong numbers coming in for Churchill, including its three graded stakes on tap for its "Downs After Dark" Saturday card. Instead of having to seek out options at Hoosier Park, Arlington or Presque Isle Downs, Kentucky-based horsemen were grateful to have real money in their backyard.
"Absolutely, a whole lot of people are here at Churchill. They come in even for the Spring Meet knowing they would have this meet here in the fall," trainer Larry Jones said from his Churchill barn this week. "That is one reason we stayed here all summer. We were going to have a lot of them at Ellis (Park) but as it turned out ... it sure made it where we didn't have to go anywhere because it just set us up for here. It's going to change the complex for us Kentucky people, without a doubt.
"You've got Kentucky Downs, the pots are fabulous there, and then with the Churchill meet here, there is reason to bring everybody's horses back and be able to run strong."
The anticipated positives that will come with Churchill's September meet are ones that could trickle down to both Keeneland's boutique October exercise and Churchill's traditional Fall Meet dates in November. Given the competition for the shrinking horse population, the stability of knowing there are three months of lucrative, solid racing on the table in Kentucky is a key selling point to owners.
"I think it's really good for the Kentucky circuit because it keeps people around for the fall meets, both at Keeneland and Churchill," said Kentucky-based conditioner Buff Bradley. "You always would like to see Turfway going at some point, but I think a lot of those people go to Indiana now, a lot of them are running up there."
Added trainer Al Stall Jr., "I think if anything it should affect the field size in Indiana because there is more money here. I imagine Indiana and Arlington in fact might take a little bit of a hit. People should want to run here first and those places second and third just because of the money."
Horsemen have backed up their praise with support in the entry box. What remains in question is what kind of backing Churchill will get in the stands and in the simulcast market from fans.
Not only are patrons unaccustomed to having September racing at Churchill as an option, there is competition from University of Louisville football. Such a balancing act will have time for adjustment as officials with Churchill Downs said the track has already applied for the same dates next year.
"We didn't approach it at any point as a one-shot deal," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs. "We think it's a meet that has great potential and it's going to meet the needs of a lot of people, from horsemen to fans who are looking for some great entertainment.
"We're excited about this meet but especially looking down the road as it matures."
When: Sept. 6-29 (Racing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays)
Prime time: "Downs After Dark" cards will be held Sept. 7 and Sept. 28, each first post at 6 p.m.
Stakes: Eight stakes races cumulatively worth nearly $1 million will be showcased, including the Grade II Pocahontas for 2-year-old fillies and the Grade III Iroquois Stakes for 2-year-olds this Saturday, both of which are "Win and You're In" races for this year's Breeders' Cup.