Classic Stage is Set at Churchill Downs

Just F Y I strutting her stuff Thursday morning | C Bossinakis

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LOUISVILLE, KY–Kicking off a steamy day in Louisville, Thursday's morning session began to distill several things that I had seen over the course of the past week at Churchill Downs. Each morning, I would line up trackside to watch the Kentucky Derby/Oaks work session, also giving me the opportunity to survey the overall landscape at Churchill Downs. The years of progress and development at the facility is staggering. As I pan across the property, the mass of seating, both existing and new, that will accommodate the throngs of people over the course of the next two days starts to really stand out. Churchill is certainly not wanting for seating. Also, I thought back to the very first time I came to Churchill for the Derby in 1991 (the year Strike the Gold won) and I can remember gazing up at the Twin Spires and thinking how majestic they seemed. Now, they don't appear quite so imposing to me given the rise of all the newer infrastructure surrounding them. So, while I was contemplating all the changes that have happened at Churchill over the last three decades, I happened to bump into one of my favorite people on the backside, trainer Wayne Catalano. After a few pleasantries, as if taking a peek into my mind, he points over in the direction of Churchill's main structure and says, 'This is the 50th anniversary of my first win in front of those Twin Spires. I won my very first race as a jockey for Jack Van Berg May 20, 1974.' It not only gave me pause, but I continued to think about that long after we had parted ways. Because while I was considering the multitude of changes I was seeing, it became increasingly clear that the history and tradition of the place wasn't kept alive by the structure itself but more by the men and women that frequent the track and that have made Churchill Downs their base and their home.

Sometimes, we need to have progress to really appreciate how we got to where we are.

 

Morning Action

The Derby and Oaks horses made their usual appearance following the 7:00 a.m harrowing break, and it offered me a final opportunity to take a look at many of the horses that will be competing in the plethora of stakes action over the next two days. A horse that I have been observing over the last few days, and while not jumping out at me initially, who has been giving me increasingly good vibes is the Albaugh Family's Catching Freedom (Constitution). Giving an air of simmering confidence on the track each day I have seen him, I was given a little extra nudge in that direction after speaking to trainer Brad Cox later in the morning. The winner of the GII Louisiana Derby Mar. 23, the bay was a respectable third to Sierra Leone (Gun Runner)–beaten 1 3/4 lengths–in a wet renewal of the GII Risen Star in February. His rider Flavien Prat has been absolutely en fuego of late (or maybe 'en feu' is more appropriate in this case). In any case, a very interesting option at a price.

Catalytic getting some love from his rider | CBossinakis

Having a final look at the Oaks fillies I could feel my excitement mounting. Just F Y I (Justify) was accompanied to the track by her Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and continued to fill the eye. She is an absolute queen. In truth, Mott's GII Wood Memorial winner Resilience (Into Mischief) looked ready to roll too. I keep thinking it would be nice to see him get a Derby win, outright this time, rather than getting put up by DQ like he did in 2021 when Country House inherited the win. Nobody deserves it more.

Some news broke later Thursday morning when it was announced that Kentucky Oaks contender Tapit Jenallie (Tapit) would scratch, giving Courtlandt Farms's Our Pretty Woman (Medaglia d'Oro) a berth in the lineup. A $900,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, she finished three-quarters of a length back of Tarifa (Bernardini)–one of the Oaks favorites–in the Mar. 23 GII Fair Grounds Oaks. Her trainer Steve Asmussen, who most recently won the Oaks with Untapable in 2014, also took the race in 2005 with Summerly. The Hall of Famer seems to be sitting on about a 10-year cycle and is due again this year.

 

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