Kentucky Downs Hoping for Better News From Graded Stakes Committee

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Kentucky DownsCoady

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Every year, the Kentucky Downs stakes schedule seems to get richer and attract better horses. This year, there were 16 stakes worth a combined $8.6 million and many were won by horses that could have an impact at the Breeders' Cup. The stakes schedule is a source of pride among the track's management team, but also a source of frustration. Only five of the stakes are graded and those are all Grade III events, which the track's senior vice president and general manager Ted Nicholson called “dumbfounding.”

“It's frustrating,” Nicholson said. “Graded races are important. It's not that our races don't get filled. They do fill and they fill very well. But to attract the top horses, it does help to get higher level graded races.”

A perceived lack of respect from the graded stakes committee has been an issue for years at Kentucky Downs. As recently as 2016, there was only one graded stakes on the schedule, what was then called the GIII Kentucky Cup Turf.

Though Nicholson is hoping the committee will look at all of the Kentucky Downs stakes, there are a couple that he said have been particularly slighted.

“The Tourist Mile is the one that is the most baffling,” he said. “We had a Breeders' Cup winner come out of there and other horses who have done extraordinarily well.”

The Tourist Mile S. is a $750,000 race that is ungraded. It was renamed after Tourist (Tiznow) went on to win the GI Breeders' Cup Mile in 2016 after winning what was then known as the More Than Ready Mile S.

The stakes program also includes the $750,000 Gun Runner Dueling Grounds Derby. It and the Tourist Mile are the richest non-restricted stakes races run in North America that are not graded.

Nicholson also wondered how the race now known as the Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup can only be a Grade III event. With a $1 million purse, it is the richest race run at Kentucky Downs. Arklow (Arch) won the race in 2020 and in 2018 and is a Grade I winner. So is 2019 winner Zulu Alpha (Street Cry) {Ire}).

“The Calumet Turf Cup has been won three years in a row now by Grade I winner, it's a $1 million race and is still a Grade III,” he said. “I don't know how that can be.”

Kentucky Downs has been able to pour money into its stakes program thanks to the revenue that is accrued from its historical horse racing machines. It may be true that, seven or eight years ago, some top trainers didn't focus on the meet and the quality of the stakes fields was lacking. But that has changed, and the track now regularly attracts the likes of Bill Mott, Graham Motion, Shug McGaughey, Chad Brown, Mark Casse and Doug O'Neill, as well as Kentucky mainstays like Wesley Ward, Brad Cox and Steve Asmussen.

While the committee has since given graded status to four additional races, Nicholson doesn't think it has done enough to recognize the quality of racing his track offers.

“Over the last few years we have seen such an enormous response, not only in stakes nominations, but who actually comes,” he said. “Trainers are circling our meet on their calendars and it's not just all the usual people. We're seeing guys coming in from all over now, including from California. It really helps when you have a year like this year when the Breeders' Cup is in Kentucky. They know they can ship in, run here for big money and stick around for the Breeders' Cup.”

Horses coming out of this year's Kentucky Downs meet have gone on to win a number of major races around the country, which has Nicholson hoping that better news from the committee is just around the corner.

Harvey's Lil Goil (American Pharoah) just won the GI Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup after finishing second in the Dueling Grounds Oaks. The winner of that race, Micheline (Bernardini), came back to finish second in the Queen Elizabeth. Ivar (Brz) (Agnes Gold {Jpn}) came back to win the GI Shadwell Turf Mile S. after finishing third in the Tourist Mile. Got Stormy (Get Stormy), Plum Ali (First Samurai) and Royal Approval (Tiznow)  have also won graded stakes since racing at this year's Kentucky Downs meet.

Harvey's Lil Goil and Ivar became the 32nd and 33rd horses since 2010 that went on to win a Grade I race in North America after racing at Kentucky Downs.

“After seeing the results of our meet and seeing how the runners from our recently concluded meet are performing at Keeneland, Belmont, Pimlico, I really would be surprised and extraordinarily disappointed if we don't see elevations in some of our graded races and grades for some of our non-graded races,” Nicholson said. “You can look at our whole stakes schedule and look at where those horses have gone and how they have performed and it is amazing. I'm not someone who has a vote. I just have to hope they are seeing the same things that I am.”

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