Every hour Friday, new weather forecasts flowed into the executive offices at Churchill Downs, producing frowns all around as the predictions went from bad to worse for today’s fifth edition of the Breeders’ Cup races.
Although the sun came out briefly Friday, the day’s races were run on a track made sloppy by a quarter-inch of rain. The forecast called for more rain Friday night, with a 50% chance of showers this afternoon. Mix in westerly winds and an arriving cold front, and the high of 58 today will seem a lot cooler. And the forecasters are saying that wet snow is possible Sunday.
Cold weather doesn’t bother most horses, but running in mud and into the wind is a handicap for many of them, and it will be unfortunate if the Breeders’ Cup, a 7-race, $10-million extravaganza with horse-of-the-year and other championship implications, is contested on an off track. If the forecasters for today are correct, many of the results may not be, as they say on the backstretch, a “true bill” for a number of competitors.
“We should do a good job running the Breeders’ Cup, even though we’ve never done it before, because we’ve had so much experience handling large crowds and important horses in the Kentucky Derby,” said Tom Meeker, the president of Churchill Downs. “But the one thing we can’t control is the weather.”
The average high temperature for early November in Louisville the last 5 years has been 67. But rain has consistently fallen on this Ohio River community during the same period. It has rained 2 out of every 5 days in early November since 1983, and the total rainfall for a 10-day period in all 5 of those years has been more than 7 1/2 inches.
So it should have been no surprise to the Breeders’ Cup directors that they were courting climatic disaster when they awarded this year’s races to Churchill Downs. But this is the same group that gave last year’s program to Hollywood Park, then expressed surprise that the track’s end-of-November dates would result in running the races later than desired.
“I sure hope (the forecasters) are wrong,” said Edgar Allen, a Churchill Downs official, about today. “Because if they’re right, the races might never come back to the Midwest again.”
Churchill Downs has been dropping strong suggestions that it be the site of the Breeders’ Cup every other year, or perhaps even more often, and Arlington Park, a burned-down track in the Chicago suburbs, is in the midst of a $110-million rebuilding program and has also indicated interest in holding the races.
For the first four Breeders’ Cups, Hollywood Park was the host
twice and Santa Anita and Aqueduct once each.
Next year, the races will be run at Gulfstream Park in the Miami Beach (Fla.) area, which has had temperatures averaging in the mid-70s for comparable dates over the last 25 years. The chance of November rain there in the last quarter-century has been less than 1%.
Based solely on weather, there really are only two logical areas to hold the Breeders’ Cup--Southern California and South Florida.
One of the horses who could be most affected by an off track today is Alysheba, a heavy favorite in the Classic and the leading candidate for horse of the year. Trainer Jack Van Berg scratched Alysheba from the Jockey Club Gold Cup last month at Belmont Park because of a sloppy track but said he would run the 1987 Kentucky Derby winner regardless of the conditions here today.
Alysheba, who can break John Henry’s earnings record of $6.5-million with a win that would be worth $1.35 million in the Classic, was reshod Friday and stickers--caulks that can help a horse get a better grip on an off track--might be added to the new front shoes if there’s mud today.
“He wears the stickers in back all the time, anyway,” Van Berg said. “But I’ve never had to run a horse with front stickers on this race track in my life. If it doesn’t rain all day (Friday), this will be a fast race track Saturday.”
Churchill Downs’ main racing strip is considered one of the fastest-drying in the country. There has not been an off track for the Kentucky Derby since 1970, even though it has rained as late as the morning of the race some years.
“This track loves water,” said Butch Lehr, Churchill Downs’ plant superintendent. “Water brings the track alive.”
Lehr is concerned, however, about a long, soaking rain, the kind predicted. The Churchill Downs turf course was first used in the spring of 1987. It will be used for 2 of the Breeders’ Cup races, the Mile and the Turf.
Generally, European horses are considered to have an advantage over American horses when the course is soft, because they are more accustomed to running on such surfaces, but the Churchill Downs course contains more sand than those abroad, and not all of the foreign trainers like the idea of running on the course if it’s yielding.
Miesque, a solid favorite to win the Mile for the second straight year, turned in a dull :51 4/5 half-mile workout Friday morning on the grass course.
“The course was a bit too wet for us, unfortunately,” trainer Francois Boutin said through an interpreter. “If the rain stops, it should be all right for us. But if it keeps raining, it wouldn’t be very good for our filly.”
Horse Racing Notes
Trainer Charlie Whittingham has an esoteric reason for beating Personal Ensign with Goodbye Halo in the Distaff. “Personal Ensign is trying to win her 13th straight race, so that should be unlucky,” Whittingham said. “And I’ll be jinxing her because I was born on April 13 in 1913.” Asked later if he really thought Personal Ensign could be beaten, Whittingham said: “They beat Man o’ War, didn’t they?”
Although Olympic Prospect worked a blazing :33 3/5 for 3 furlongs in preparing for the Sprint, trainer John Sadler didn’t think he went too fast. . . . Susan’s Girl, who won 3 Eclipse Awards for owner Fred Hooper in the early 1970s, died a few days ago, at 19, at Hooper’s farm in Ocala, Fla. Susan’s Girl was one of the many broodmares that Precisionist was unable to impregnate before he resumed his racing career. Precisionist, a 7-year-old, is trying to win the Sprint for the second time. He is the oldest horse running in the Breeders’ Cup, and Hooper, 91, is the oldest owner.
Asked if he was surprised that Very Subtle, the defending champion in the Sprint, was listed as a 30-1 longshot in the morning line, trainer Mel Stute said: “That’s all right. Now I’ll be able to bet less.” . . . Synastry, running in the Sprint, is owned in part by actor Albert Finney, the son of an English bookmaker. . . . Personal Ensign, who will be running her last race, will be bred next year to Mr. Prospector, who sired seven of today’s starters.