Spiraling Up to the Kentucky Derby

March 14th, 2018

The story behind Turfway Park's Kentucky Derby prep-race

Though it was something he had done likely tens of thousands of times before, Mike Battaglia’s apprehension was palpable, then vocalized, to several guests in the Turfway Park announcer’s booth on the evening of Feb. 23.

Before climbing up to the familiar perch, Battaglia was among the luminaries swapping stories on the history of the track at the Latonia Days charity dinner in the Turfway clubhouse. Now, the 68-year-old had to dust off a pair of binoculars he hadn’t touched in a year, nervously memorize the names and silk colors of 11 horses in the span of about 15 minutes, and adjust his eyes to a darkness they’re rarely open to see anymore.

“This is way past my bedtime,” he said.

Battaglia ended his 43-year career of full-time announcing at Turfway in March 2016, but the last couple of years he’s come out of retirement to call one race, the John Battaglia Memorial.

Inaugurated a year after John Battaglia’s passing in 1981, the Memorial is not Turfway’s signature event. It is instead a stepping stone to a tangible legacy Mike’s father – handicapper, publicist, and racetrack manager -- left behind.

“I’ll never forget this. In 1971 we were sitting in a meeting and there may have been six or seven people there,” Mike Battaglia recalled. “My Dad told us we would start a race here at Latonia that was going to be a prelude to the Kentucky Derby. And of course that was not going to happen.”

At the time, Mike Battaglia and others were right to be skeptical. Latonia, as Turfway was then known and would be for more than another decade, was located in a fast-growing part of the state in the Cincinnati suburbs. However, like Ellis Park and the now-defunct Miles Park in Louisville, which John Battaglia also managed, Latonia was more blue collar than blue blood like in-state stalwarts Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

Latonia’s season was shorter in 1971, a winter meet in late February and March followed by one in September, but then as now racing was generally conducted at night for the benefit of its patrons. Its relatively modest handle, the sole generator of purse money, ensured the track did not host any stakes of national significance.

Mike Battaglia prepares to call the Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park (Adam Spradling Photo)


“The old track was absolutely fantastic and amazing, one of the top 10 tracks in America indisputably…”

Latonia/Turfway opened in 1959, 20 years after the original Latonia, located some nine miles northeast of the current track, shuttered after more than a half-century in business. Its financial decline and fall from national prominence in the Great Depression years was swift and sad given the heights it had scaled.

“The old track was absolutely fantastic and amazing, one of the top 10 tracks in America indisputably,” said Jim Claypool, who has written extensively about Turfway and Latonia as the tracks’ historian. “From 1915…they led the country in purses distributed, or were second, for 15 years.”

Latonia obviously had the drawing power and prestige to attract many of the nation’s top Thoroughbreds in its day. Commensurate with its status the track had a top-level race for three-year-olds, the Latonia Derby, held in the summer after the Triple Crown.

Inaugurated in 1883 as the Hindoo Stakes and renamed four years later, the Latonia Derby was run over 1 1/2 miles for most of its history. In its early decades it benefited from the limitations of easy travel existent at the time. Horses that had won or competed in the Kentucky Derby less than two months before were more apt to stay in the region, aiming for races like it and the American Derby in Chicago.

The first Latonia Derby was won by Leonatus, who had also won the Kentucky Derby. He was ridden by the Hall of Famer Isaac Murphy, who would pilot four of the first five Latonia Derby winners.

Others that pulled off the Kentucky Derby/Latonia Derby double included Kingman (1891), Halma (1895), Ben Brush (1896), Lieut. Gibson (1900), Elwood (1904), and Sir Huon (1906). The legendary gelding Exterminator, however, was turned back by Belmont Stakes winner Johren in 1918.

Easily the fastest Latonia Derby run at 12 furlongs was won by the filly Handy Mandy (1927), who darted to victory in a time of 2:28 3/5, which lowered the track mark by three-fifths of a second and Man o’ War’s American record by one-fifth.

Latonia in October 1924 was the site of the third and final International Special pitting the French champion Epinard against many of America’s best runners. As was the case in the prior two legs at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, Epinard had to settle for second, this time to leading three-year-old Sarazen, who blitzed 1 1/4 miles in 2:00 4/5 before a crowd estimated between 50,000 and 60,000.

Latonia hummed along through the 1920s adding another major three-year-old stakes – the Latonia Championship at 1 3/4 miles – to its program, but by the time Rushaway pulled off an incredible double winning the Illinois Derby on May 23, 1936 and the Latonia Derby the very next afternoon under Johnny Longden, Latonia was close to the end. The bottoming out of the economy, combined with a racetrack construction boom that resulted in increased competition, most notably from Coney Island/River Downs across the river in Cincinnati, proved too much for the Col. Matt Winn-operated track.

Vance Hanson provides a quick history on how Turfway Park came to be

A Road to the Kentucky Derby

“It took a while but, really, it didn’t take that long…”

Getting leading or aspiring three-year-old Thoroughbreds back to race in northern Kentucky would take time. Plenty of it. It would also take someone with foresight and ingenuity, someone like John Battaglia.

“Nobody in their right mind would believe you were going to start a race here and it was going to be a prelude to the Blue Grass and the Kentucky Derby,” Mike Battaglia said. “Well, he firmly believed it. He was a man of vision. It took a while but, really, it didn’t take that long.”

John Battaglia’s brainchild, cleverly named the Spiral Stakes (“spiraling up” to the Kentucky Derby), was born on April 1, 1972. The race was contested over one mile for a purse of $10,000 and was won by the Oklahoma-bred Big Dot, who never won another stakes. By the end of the 1970s, though, the quality of Spiral winners began to improve.

(Holly Smith Photo)

Unfortunately, John Battaglia did not live to see this creation reach full bloom. Having moved on from Latonia to manage River Downs and later Charles Town in his final years, Battaglia underwent triple-bypass, open-heart surgery in February 1981. He died soon after at the age of 51.

A year after Battaglia’s death, the Spiral began to sprout wings courtesy of a then-recent trend in racing: corporate sponsorship. Thanks to an infusion of money from the Jim Beam Distillery, the Spiral purse shot up to $150,000 for its 1982 running and the race would soon be known as the Jim Beam Stakes. The very next year, Mike Battaglia feels, is when the race came into its own.

“By 1983, 11 years after the race started, Wayne Lukas brought a horse here called Marfa, and Marfa had only won one race,” Battaglia said. “He won this race, he won the Santa Anita Derby, and he was the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. And I said, ‘This is it. This made the race.’ The next year Lukas brought in a filly, Lucky Lucky Lucky. She didn’t win, but she won the (Kentucky) Oaks.”

Upgraded to a Grade 3 event for that 1984 renewal, the Jim Beam was captured by At the Threshold, the first of five wins in the race for Hall of Fame jockey and fan favorite Pat Day. At the Threshold would leave a more important mark on the Jim Beam eight years later.

In 1986, Broad Brush invaded from Maryland to capture the Jim Beam, and later ran third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. By 1987, the track had new owners (a partnership led by Jerry Carroll), a new name (Turfway Park), and the Jim Beam purse was raised to $500,000.

Upgraded to a Grade 2 in 1988, the Jim Beam attracted the winners of the Florida Derby both that year and the next, but each proved third best in their respective races. In 1989, Western Playboy became the first horse to win both the Jim Beam and the Blue Grass.

The years 1990-1995 were boom ones for the race. Summer Squall kicked off the decade winning the Beam and later captured the Blue Grass and then the Preakness after running second in the Kentucky Derby. In 1991, Hansel won at Turfway but ran poorly as the Derby favorite. He rebounded to take the Preakness and Belmont Stakes en route to champion three-year-old honors.

Vance Hanson describes the historical significance of the Jeff Ruby Steaks (Spiral Stakes)

John Battaglia’s ultimate dream was eventually realized in 1992 when Lil E. Tee, a son of At the Threshold, captured the Jim Beam and later gave Pat Day his only Kentucky Derby victory. Classic success did not stop there as Prairie Bayou captured the 1993 Beam and, like Summer Squall, went on to victory in the Blue Grass and Preakness with a runner-up placing at Churchill Downs in between. He was posthumously awarded three-year-old champion honors.

Serena’s Song remains the only filly ever to win the race after blitzing her competition, including Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano Run, in 1995. She was named champion of her division and is the only Hall of Fame member to win the race.

In 1997, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s Concerto became the first horse to win the Battaglia Memorial and Jim Beam, and did so before a then-record crowd of more than 20,000. The final edition run under the sponsorship of Jim Beam was in 1998, when Event of the Year won by five lengths in a race delayed 24 hours due to damaging winds.

The richest edition of the Spiral was in 1999 when new sponsor Galleryfurniture.com boosted the purse to $750,000, but the race reverted to its original name in 2000. In 2002, Lane’s End Farm began a nine-year run of sponsorship. Notable winners during that span included Perfect Drift, Flower Alley, and Hard Spun.

“In 2011, a colt with a one-for-three record ... showed up in the Spiral as one of the favorites ... to run at 20-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby, and win”

The latter was the second winner (2007) of the race over Turfway’s synthetic Polytrack surface, installed in the fall of 2005. Hard Spun went on to place in the Kentucky Derby behind Street Sense, but turned the tables on that foe in the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway that fall.

Turfway was not alone in introducing a synthetic surface that decade, and other leading Kentucky Derby preps such as the Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby were for a time contested on non-dirt tracks. However, with the reversion of Keeneland and Santa Anita back to conventional dirt surfaces, Turfway’s most important race now stands alone as the only Kentucky Derby prep in the United States run on a synthetic surface.

Animal Kingdom (Horsephotos.com)

That has proven to be a mixed blessing. In 2011, a colt with a one-for-three record, Animal Kingdom, showed up in the Spiral as one of the favorites. Six weeks after an impressive win at Turfway, Animal Kingdom won by a similar margin – 2 3/4 lengths – in his first start on dirt in the Kentucky Derby, that time as a 20-1 shot. He, too, was named champion three-year-old.

Aside from Animal Kingdom, though, the race’s impact on the Kentucky Derby has lessened in recent years. Unlike other preps held around the same time, this year’s race will offer only 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner.

Sponsorship of the Spiral has also continued to fluctuate. After Lane’s End came backing from Vinery Racing, Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, and JACK Casino Cincinnati. On March 17, 2018 and for the following two years, the Spiral will be run as the Jeff Ruby Steaks (pun intended) thanks to an agreement reached with Jeff Ruby, a critically-acclaimed Cincinnati restaurateur.

No matter its moniker or its impact on the Kentucky Derby going forward, the Spiral long ago fulfilled the hopes John Battaglia had in creating it all those years ago.

“I’m kind of proud he started this race and that it turned in to what it did,” Mike Battaglia said.

Mike Battaglia calls the Battaglia Memorial, named after his father John.

Learn more about Latonia, Turfway, the Spiral Stakes and Kentucky Derby history: