John Clay

Keeneland experiences glorious but imperfect opening day to Fall Meet

If horse racing is in trouble, Keeneland’s fans are the last to be told.

A crowd of 16,427 turned out on a perfect fall Friday for the first of the three-day Fall Stars Weekend. Hey, Fayette County Schools are on fall break. There’s no UK football game Saturday. What better way to get the weekend started than the return of Keeneland racing.

On the plus side, those in attendance were treated to wonderful weather and a pair of graded stakes races with the “Win and You’re In” winner automatically qualifying for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup next month at Santa Anita in California.

On the negative side, in another example of how difficult to make the sport perfectly safe, a newly “rehabilitated” track surface and the creation of two new positions to focus on equine safety — Dr. George Mundy, equine safety director; Jim Pendergest, director of racing surfaces — could not prevent an equine fatality on the first day of the meet.

A 4-year-old colt named Stella d’Oro was euthanized after sustaining a catastrophic injury in Friday’s fourth race, according to a statement released by Keeneland.

“In addition to the investigation conducted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which includes a forensic necropsy,” said Mundy in the statement, “Keeneland will conduct an independent review of the incident, the results of which will be published when completed.”

Meanwhile, 2-year-old filly British Idiom captured the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades by an impressive six-and-a-half lengths for trainer Brad Cox over favorite Perfect Alibi, trained by Mark Casse.

“She’s a real classy filly, really laid back, doesn’t get worked up over anything,” said Cox, who trained the multiple Grade 1 stakes winning filly Monomoy Girl. “Monomoy was like that. In the paddock, just very laid back. You throw the tack on her and you wonder if they’re awake and they got their game face on.”

Monomoy Girl didn’t win her first Grade 1 until as a 3-year-old she triumphed in last year’s Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

“Well, yeah at this point in her career (she is ahead),” said Cox of British Idiom. “But she’s got big shoes to fill. She needs four more Grade 1s to catch up, to tie, so well see.”

Casse wasn’t too disappointed in Perfect Alibi, coming off back-to-back wins at Saratoga in the Grade 2 Adirondack and the Grade 1 Spinaway. The trainer saw no reason why the daughter of Sky Mesa wouldn’t continue on to the Breeders’ Cup.

“I’ll talk to Mr. Farmer, but I would think so,” said Casse of owner Tracy Farmer, who teamed with Casse to win this year’s Belmont Stakes with Sir Winston. “If you’re not in it, you can’t win it. We’re not going to let one little defeat deter us I don’t think, but that’ll be up to Mr. Farmer.”

Before British Idiom clinched her spot in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Engage clinched a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Division by winning the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix, spoiling the rematch between 2018 Phoenix winner Promises Fulfilled and 2018 Phoenix runner-up Whitmore.

Breaking last in the 6-furlong race, Whitmore ended up second for trainer Ron Moquett. The 2-1 favorite, Promises Fulfilled sat second at the half-mile pole, but faded to sixth for trainer Dale Romans.

“We’ll take him back and figure it out,” Romans said. “He (jockey Luis Saez) said he thought he was running good early, thought he had a lot of horse. I don’t know.”

It was just the second race trainer Steve Asmussen had run Engage, who was previously trained by Chad Brown. The 4-year-old colt won the Bensalem Stakes at Parx Racing on Sept. 2 before winning his first stakes since taking the Grade 3 Belmont Futurity in 2017.

“He’s a quality horse, a Belmont Futurity winner,” Asmussen said. “Just an absolutely beautiful individual. Coming off a win in the Bensalem got his confidence where it needed to be. Loved the way he looked over the racetrack here and thought he had a big chance.”

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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