Next week, the eyes of the racing world will be firmly fixated on Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. On Saturday, May 1, Churchill will host the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, just as it has every year since 1875.
weekend TV schedule
Although the Derby and its equivalent for the fillies, the Longines Kentucky Oaks, are the signature races at Churchill Downs, the racing product there goes far beyond those two races. The Derby and Oaks are just two of the 39 stakes races offered during their spring meet, one of three meets they offer over the course of the year. The spring season consists of 38 racing days and runs from April 24 until June 26.
Here, we’ll take a look at the basics of the racing at Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs, like most American racetracks, has a one-mile main dirt oval, with a seven-furlong — a furlong is an eighth of a mile — turf course on the inside. The main track is notable for its small turns and long straightaways. The stretch run at Churchill is 1,234.5 feet, making it one of the longest homestretches in the country. The track is made primarily of sand, with silt and clay also included in the mix. The turf course, which was installed in 1987, is mostly made up of fescue, a type of narrow-leafed grass.
The dirt track features a quarter-mile chute on the backstretch, which enables one-turn races at distances up to one mile.
WHEN THEY RACE
During Kentucky Derby week, Churchill races from Tuesday to Saturday. The first race on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday is at 12:45 p.m. ET, while the first race on Derby day and Kentucky Oaks day is 10:30 a.m. ET.
For the rest of the meet, racing at Churchill is conducted from Thursday to Sunday. The first race on Thursdays is at 5 p.m., and 12:45 p.m. is the first post time on the other days of the week. On three Saturdays, April 24 (which is also opening night), May 22, and June 12, the first race will be at 6 p.m. ET. There’s also racing on Memorial Day, starting at 12:45 p.m. ET.
Like most tracks, Churchill offers win/place/show, exacta, trifecta, and superfecta wagering on all races with a sufficient number of betting interests. “Rolling” doubles and Pick 3s are offered on every race. The double has a $1 minimum wager; the Pick 3 a 50-cent minimum.
On normal racing days, Churchill has three Pick 4 wagers a day. The early Pick 4 starts in Race 2, the middle Pick 4 begins in Race 4, and the late Pick 4 consists of the last four races of the day. The minimum wager is 50 cents. There also are two Pick 5 bets a day. The early Pick 5 is on the first five races, while the late Pick 5 is comprised of the last five races. The minimum wager is also 50 cents. A jackpot-style pick 6, called the Derby City 6, is offered on the last six races.
The wagering options on Oaks and Derby day are more expansive. Oaks day features four Pick 4s, consisting of races 2 through 5, 4 through 7, 8 through 11, and 10 through 13. There are also four Pick 5s, in races 1 through 5, 3 through 7, 7 through 11, and 9 through 13. There is also a special double linking the Oaks and the Derby, and a Pick 3 with those two races plus the Old Forester Turf Classic, which immediately precedes the Derby.
On Derby day, there are also four Pick 4s and four Pick 5s. The pick 4s start in races 2, 5, 9, and 11, while the Pick 5 bets kick off in races 1, 4, 8, and 10.
The Super Hi-5, a $1 wager requiring the bettor to pick the first five finishers in order, will be offered only on the Derby.
JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS TO WATCH
The top jockey at Churchill in 2020 was Tyler Gaffalione. He swept his way through all three meets, with a combined 92 wins from 395 starts, good for a 23.2% win rate. Gaffalione figures to once again cast an imposing shadow over the rest of the Churchill riding colony.
Ricardo Santana Jr. and Florent Geroux also had successful years last year, finishing in the top four in each of the three meets. Corey Lanerie has enjoyed success in the past at Churchill; he was the leading rider at all three Churchill meets in 2019, and has won six of the last 11 riding titles.
Steve Asmussen is the all-time leading trainer at Churchill, and figures to have another great spring meet. Last spring, Asmussen won the training title with 17 wins, edging out second-place Brad Cox, who amassed 16 victories. Asmussen was first in the standings during the September meet and second in the fall meet. Mike Maker won the fall meet title last year, and has been a consistent presence in the top five in the trainer standings.
Like at most tracks, early speed is an asset on the Churchill dirt track. At the 2019 spring meet, horses on or near the pace enjoyed great success, with 33% of winners in races at 1 1/16 miles going gate-to-wire. At the September meet, about 20% of all winners on dirt were pacesetters, including Kentucky Derby winner Authentic.
Both the dirt and turf course have unique compositions. In particular, the composition of the turf course resembles that of Keeneland and Fair Grounds, where many Churchill turf horses spend their winters and springs. As a result, horses who raced well there generally enjoy success at Churchill as well. For dirt races, record at Churchill is important: horses who are familiar with the surface tend to race better there.
WHERE TO WATCH
As in years past, you can watch Churchill Downs on America’s Day at the Races on FOX Sports. The broadcast can also be found on the New York Racing Association’s YouTube page.
For Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby day, you can catch the action through NBC Sports. Oaks coverage will start at noon ET and go until 6 p.m. on NBCSN. On Derby day, coverage kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, then switches over to NBC from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET.