Normal Kentucky Derby: Capacity crowd, big hats, mint juleps

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby is the next major sporting event to move a step closer to normalcy after two years of upheaval adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions.

After fluctuating dates and crowds, Churchill Downs will welcome everybody without restrictions on Saturday, raising hopes of getting back to 150,000 or more beneath the Twin Spires.

If attendance and participation around Louisville and other major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and Major League Baseball games are any indication, the atmosphere for the first jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown should have a pre-pandemic feel, though masks are optional.

“I grew up here, so I’ve been expecting big things out of this year since it opened up to full capacity,” Louisville native Brett Rebalsky said during Saturday night’s opening at the historic track. “Really, just seeing the city come alive again.”

The 2020 running was delayed until Labor Day weekend, then held without spectators. It returned returned to its familiar spring slot eight months later in 2021, but with limited capacity.

At the very least this year should feature the spectrum of women in big hats and fascinators and men in seersucker suits, sipping bourbon and mint juleps as cigar smoke wafts through the air.

And possibly, a bigger bottom line for a city whose identity still comes from the marquee sporting event.

The initial projected local economic impact from Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for fillies and Saturday’s Derby was $324 million. But with COVID-19 restrictions lifted for many activities and venues, local officials are optimistic of reaching or exceeding the $400 million Derby season normally generates.

It seems attainable considering last weekend’s Thunder Over Louisville air and fireworks show packed the Ohio River waterfront with people on blankets and in lawn chairs. Opening night at Churchill Downs drew 22,207, while companion events such as the Derby marathon and Pegasus Parade attracted crowds resembling pre-pandemic levels.

Event organizers are pulling out all the stops.

The Derby afterparty features an outdoor downtown concert headlined by Grammy-winning superstar Janet Jackson with popular R&B group New Edition.

Put it all together and hotels are filling up again. Occupancy citywide is estimated at 85%, 2% higher than in 2019. The downtown estimate of 94% is inching closer to the pre-pandemic 97% rate.

But even with that, some pandemic hangover remains with supply chain and staffing challenges for area attractions and restaurants.

“We’re hoping that people traveling to Louisville for the Derby will take that into account and bring their patience with them,” Louisville Tourism marketing spokeswoman Stacey Yates said.

Churchill Downs and its partners anticipate no such staffing issues for spectators after waiting three years to handle a packed house. The historic track will continue selling all-inclusive food and drink packages in reserved seating areas to reduce in-line wait times.

With 30 workers staffing five kiosks and walking the grounds selling cigars, Jonathan Blue predicts “a record year” as the official vendor after a limited approach last spring. Overall, cigar sales are up with alcohol sales steady for the Liquor Barn co-owner, whose statewide chain provided home deliveries for Derby parties during the pandemic.

Distiller and race sponsor Woodford Reserve also anticipates bigger opportunities after two years of marketing the at-home Derby experience. That aspect will continue. But judging from its signage and booths around Churchill Downs, the Versailles, Kentucky-based maker of top-shelf bourbon is excited about getting closer to how things were.

“After these last two years of the lockdown and scaling down, certainly here in Kentucky, everybody’s just ready to bust out and party,” Woodford Reserve spokesman Chris Poynter said.

“The Derby is such an ingrained part of the DNA of Kentucky that it’s really part of the way of life here,” Poynter said. “You have Derby, you have horses and you have bourbon. That’s the trifecta for Kentuckians.”

And even for those outside the Bluegrass State.

The opening-night energy certainly sold Michele Caywood and her husband, Eric, on returning for the Oaks and Derby. Just weaving through fans around the paddock and soaking in the atmosphere of roses and tulips made them feel they had checked off at least part of their bucket-list item.

“As a little girl we used to watch it on television of course, and it’s just an amazing race,” said Caywood, from Jefferson City, Missouri. “It’s just cool to be able to see these horses in person, the talent these jockeys have and when they you see them running on the track, it’s amazing.”

And a welcomed sight for Derby officials and fans alike.

Watch the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 7 on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.