By Lynne Snierson
Disrupted schedules, canceled plans, and insurmountable challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic may have called off the Keeneland Spring Meet, but officials at the historic track weren’t ready to scratch the season altogether.
Instead, this unique set of circumstances resulted in the idea of a short summer meet for the first time at the track in Lexington, Kentucky.
The five-day Summer Meet offers 10 graded stakes worth $2.575 million. Opening day is Wednesday (July 8); closing day is Sunday (July 12). The $600,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) on July 11 (not on its usual date in April) is the centerpiece of the meet. The Blue Grass remains an important prep for the Kentucky Derby (G1), which has been moved from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September.
The races will be run with strict protocols in place to contain the spread of the virus. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear approved the track’s request to allow a limited number of owners to attend only on the day their horses are running, but fans in the stands are still prohibited. Face masks and social distancing are required, and amenities like food and beverage will be scaled back.
“We’re living in uncertain times. With everything going on, it’s been a really good thing to know we can continue to do what we need to do, and that’s to take care of these horses,” said Ron Moquett, who plans to saddle his first Blue Grass starter, the Arkansas-bred Man in the Can.
The 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass offers 100-40-20-10 Derby-qualifying points to the first four finishers. The race figures to draw a field of 12 sophomores trying to nail down a spot in the Derby starting gate and it might even attract added interest with the addition of a multiple graded stakes winning filly.
Swiss Skydiver, owned by Peter Callahan and trained by Kenny McPeek, has rattled off impressive wins in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn (G3) and the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) in her last three outs and her trainer is mulling a test against the boys, or the $400,000 Ashland Stakes (G1) for fillies on Saturday’s undercard.
The Ashland is a major prep for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and offers 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the first four past the wire, although Swiss Skydiver has already earned her spot and sits securely atop the Oaks leaderboard with 310 points. The daughter of Daredevil is nominated to both the Derby and the Oaks.
McPeek told Keeneland racing analyst Tom Leach, “I’m still up in the air and we’re still analyzing the PP’s on both races. She’s a really special filly. She’s going to get weight (a five-pound allowance for her sex) if we run her in the Blue Grass.”
What is complicating the decision is that McPeek also conditions Envoutante, who is a definite for the 1 1/16th-mile Ashland.
“In this odd year I’ve got another really good (3-year-old) filly,” he said. “I’ve never been one who likes to go into a race knowing you’re going beat yourself with one or the other. But they’re two very, very good fillies. Envoutante is not stakes tested yet but I think she’s that quality.”
McPeek said he’ll likely delay the decision on Swiss Skydiver until entries are drawn Wednesday (July 8). If she runs in the Blue Grass, she would be only the second filly to do so. In 1944, when the Keeneland meet was run at Churchill Downs due to extenuating circumstances because of World War II, a filly finished fifth in the field.
“She’ll get some attention if she runs. It would be cool to be the first filly to win the Blue Grass,” said McPeek, who has won it twice, with Harlan’s Holiday in 2002 and Java’s War in 2013.
While Swiss Skydiver is possible for the Blue Grass, probables are Art Collector, Attachment Rate, Basin, Enforceable, Finnick the Fierce, Hard Lighting, Hunt the Front, Man in the Can, Mr. Big News, Rushie, Shivaree, and Winning Impression.
Basin, who won the Hopeful Stakes (G1) at Saratoga and was second behind the now sidelined Charlatan in the first division of the Arkansas Derby (G1) on May 2, could help deliver a stellar meet to Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
He is planning to also run Alta’s Award in the Ashland and Grade 1-winning sprinter Mia Mischief in the 7-furlong Madison Stakes (G1) on the Saturday card and Henley’s Joy in the Elkhorn Stakes (G2) at 1 ½ miles on the turf on Sunday (July 12). One year ago, Henley’s Joy won the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) on the grass for trainer Mike Maker but hasn’t visited the winner’s circle since.
“Basin went well over the racetrack,” said Asmussen of the colt’s last breeze on June 29, when he whistled 5 furlongs in 1:00.60. “He’s done well with his little freshening since the Arkansas Derby.”
The meet’s graded stakes action kicks off Friday (July 10) with the $300,000 Maker’s Mark Mile (G1) and the rematch between the Chad Brown-trained Raging Bull, who was fourth in last year’s edition, and the Mark Casse-trained War of Will. Both millionaires, Raging Bull dominated the Shoemaker Mile (G1) last out while War of Will, the 2019 Preakness (G1) victor was a well-beaten sixth.
War of Will hasn’t won since the Preakness and hasn’t won on the grass so Casse is looking for a reversal of form from the colt.
In other graded stakes action on Saturday (July 11), the $350,000 Coolmore Jenny Wiley (G1) at 1 1/16 miles on the turf is for fillies and mares, the $150,000 Shakertown (G2) at 5 ½ furlongs on the grass is for sprinters aged 3 and up, and the $150,000 Appalachian Stakes is restricted to sophomore fillies going one mile on the lawn
On Friday, the $100,000 Beaumont (G3) for 3-year-old fillies will be run at 7 furlongs and Sunday’s closing day will have the $100,000 Kentucky Utilities Transylvania (G3) on the card.
The shift from a Spring Meet in April to the condensed Summer Meet in July has not adversely affected measures for the 2020 Keeneland Sales, which are an enormous contributor to the bottom line of the global racing and sales company.
Prepping for the September Yearling Sales from Sept. 9-13 and for the November Breeding Stock Sale, which is scheduled after Keeneland finishes hosting the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 6-7, are still on schedule.
There is another momentous change coming to Keeneland, which was founded in 1936. For the first time the reins will be handed to a woman.
Shannon Bishop Arvin is the unanimous choice of the board of trustees to succeed Bill Thomason as president and chief operating officer when he retires at the end of the year. Arvin, who as a partner with Stoll Keenon Ogden has served as corporate counsel to Keeneland since 2008 and as secretary and advisory member of Keeneland’s board of directors since 2015, will serve as the incoming president-elect beginning Sept. 1 and will officially transition to president and CEO on Jan. 1, 2021.
Arvin becomes the eighth president of Keeneland.