Racing returns to Churchill Downs on Friday with a 10-race program beginning at 12:45 p.m. (ET) as the famed Louisville racetrack opens its third September Meet for an action-packed 11-date run through September 27.
Inaugurated by Churchill Downs in 2013, the three-week September Meet provides Kentucky horsemen with an opportunity to compete for ample prize money mainly on dirt in advance of the popular Keeneland and Churchill Downs fall meets. Some events on this year’s eight-race, $1.025 million stakes schedule could serve as steppingstones to the October 30-31 Breeders’ Cup World Championships in Lexington, including the $175,000 Lukas Classic on Sept. 26 which was recently renamed to honor 80-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Ninety-four horses and seven also-eligible entries were entered Tuesday for Friday’s opener, which includes two allowances and three maiden special weights. Entries were up 22% compared to the 77 on last year’s 10-race opening day program.
Friday’s featured ninth race at 4:49 p.m. is a $42,200 second-level allowance/optional claiming event at six furlongs that attracted eight fillies and mares led by Scarlet Stable’s House of Sole, a 4-year-old daughter of Limehouse who finished second at short odds last time out at Indiana Downs after impressively winning a first-level allowance at Churchill Downs in June for trainer Roger Brueggemann.
Two of the three maiden allowance races are for 2-year-olds at one mile. Trainer Mark Casse appears to hold a strong hand in both $38,200 races with Conquest Stables’ Conquest Big E, a first-time starter in Race 5 (2:45 p.m.), and John C. Oxley’s Gametown, a runner-up on grass at Saratoga in Race 8 (4:18 p.m.).
Horsemen can compete for $3,958,300 in prize money offered in Director of Racing Ben Huffman’s 109-race condition book, which averages to $359,845 per day. Last year, $3,864,487 was paid to horsemen over 12 dates and 122 races for a daily average of $322,041.
The September Meet’s eight-race stakes schedule cumulatively worth $1,025,000 kicks off Saturday, with a stakes quartet, including two important 1 1/16-mile fixtures for juveniles that could produce starters in next spring’s $2 million Kentucky Derby (G1) and $1 million Kentucky Oaks (G1).
The $150,000 Iroquois (G3) kicks off the 35-race “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series (Top 4 Points: 10-4-2-1), while the $200,000 Pocahontas (G2) starts the 31-race “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” (Top 4 Points: 10-4-2-1). Also, both races are Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge events, which means the winners will receive automatic berths in the starting gate for their respective Breeders’ Cup races on October 31.
Saturday’s stakes foursome is completed by a pair of stakes for fillies and mares, the $100,000 Locust Grove over 1 1/16 miles and $100,000 Open Mind at six furlongs.
The $100,000 Dogwood (G3) for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs will be the featured event on September 19 – the lone Downs After Dark night racing event of the September Meet.
A stakes tripleheader topped by the Lukas Classic – a 1 1/8-mile race designed as a prep for the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic and November’s Clark H. (G1) – will be showcased on September 26. Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned won the inaugural 2013 running when it was known as the Homecoming Classic. The race was won last year by Cigar Street, who would finish seventh to Bayern in the 2014 Classic at Santa Anita.
The Lukas Classic will share the spotlight with top milers in the $100,000 Ack Ack Handicap (G3) and 3-year-olds in the $100,000 Jefferson Cup (G3) at one mile on the Matt Winn Turf Course – the only stakes race on grass during the meet.
The Lukas Classic and Iroquois received $50,000 purse hikes for 2015.