When Churchill Downs holds a “Downs After Dark” race night, you know there’s going to be a big crowd and Saturday night was no different. The apron was already decently full for the first race and there were still a few hours to go until the stakes.
By the fourth race on the card, the crowds had made it so it was hard to get a decent spot to see the horses in the paddock with people of all ages enjoying a night at the races.
The first stakes race of the night, the Matt Winn, was an exciting one for me because it featured my Kentucky Derby pick. McCraken didn’t run up to my hopes in the Derby but I was hopeful he could rebound here.
And remember how I said the space around the paddock rail was nearly non-existent by the fourth race? By the Matt Winn (the fifth race), you were out of luck if you hadn’t already grabbed a spot.
Hopefully those same people made it out to the track after the horses left the paddock because McCraken did what many expected him to do on this track during the Derby.
He didn’t get to visit the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle but the Matt Winn victory could be a good rebound for the rest of his career. After all, Gun Runner won the race after losing the Kentucky Derby last year.
One of the more lovable horses in racing over the last few years is Kasaqui, who always seems to run a good race. It also helps that he’s a character. When he saw the photographers at the tunnel, he stopped and posed until his groom forced him to move.
I think it was a sign of things to come because Kasaqui romped home by 2 ¾ lengths to win his first race since last July.
Jockey James Graham was understandably thrilled about the victory, maybe even more so than his mount. As Kasaqui headed home, it was time for the Kentucky Derby to shine again under the spires.
Did you know that the Derby connections don’t get their trophies on Derby day? The trophies are taken to be engraved and presented on Stephen Foster night. So Todd Pletcher, Johnny Velazquez and the Always Dreaming team were in town to accept them.
Always Dreaming’s co-breeder Mike Ryan was the first one to receive his trophy. It was a great Triple Crown season for Ryan, as he also bought Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing as a yearling.
Velazquez then received his trophy and had to book it back to the jockeys’ room to change silks for the next race. His expression when asked if he wanted to hand back the trophy for safekeeping instead of taking it back to the jockeys’ room was hilarious.
When the ownership group got the winning owners’ trophy, the cell phones came out as everyone took turns taking a picture with the trophy. I think about 20 people had their hands on the trophy in a 30 second period.
As they wrapped up the trophy ceremony, the fillies and mares running in the Fleur de Lis started preparing for their race and fans were excited to see the first Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In race of the night.
Forever Unbridled, who was making her first start since finishing third to Beholder and Songbird in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, went off as the favorite with hopes of getting an automatic spot in this year’s Distaff gate.
She didn’t show any rust in the race, winning her first start of the year and earning a trip to Del Mar this fall.
On top of everything she got for the win (mints, pats, the day off on Sunday), she also got a cool saddle towel and this blanket. She better be careful though, it looks like some of her connections really like it.
The Stephen Foster was a tough race to handicap when you got past Gun Runner, so before the horses headed over a few fans huddled together to figure out what they wanted to do with the race.
Gun Runner was the favorite after finishing a strong second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. A Stephen Foster win would strengthen the claim that he’s the second-best older horse in the U.S., a title he’s currently fighting out with Shaman Ghost.
But if he ran a bad race, a few others looked to make gains in the division. You had Canadian classic winner Breaking Lucky, who finished second to Gun Runner in last year’s Clark Handicap, there.
Stanford, who is always capable of running a super race when he feels up to it.
And Honorable Duty, who has really popped onto the scene in the older horse division this year.
But when Gun Runner was given an easy lead it was all over. He toyed with the field a bit at the top of the stretch then decided to end their torture by pulling away to a seven-length victory.
It was such an easy victory that Florent Geroux gave him a pat before they even crossed the wire and had a few seconds to celebrate as well.
Assuming everyone stays healthy, it looks like Gun Runner will get another chance at Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. But for now, his connections will just celebrate all the swag they got to take home for this victory.
To end the night, another horse with Triple Crown connections made it to the winner’s circle. Sweeping Paddy, a full sister to last year’s Preakness Stakes runner-up Cherry Wine, made easy work of the Regret Stakes to win by 3 ½ lengths.
With the stakes action over, racegoers filtered to the stage area by the paddock for a concert Churchill Downs was hosting. When I made it over after the last race, it was still packed and didn’t look like many people left the track when the races ended.
Bonus! The concert featured a boat that had mermaids and the Katy Perry sharks!
And man, that shark could move. The sharks on Shark Week should really be jealous.
Knowing that life couldn’t get much better at this point, it was time to head home. While it made for a late night, it was definitely worth it. Churchill Downs put together a great card and great post-racing entertainment to make it a fun Saturday night.