Wicked weather reigns at Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs is getting ready for horse racing's biggest day of the year Saturday, the Kentucky Derby.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – By the end of the week, at the end of the long prep season toward the Kentucky Derby, handicappers and horsemen alike often simply look to the heavens for some sort of inspiration or intervention, but this year they needed to look earlier, for on Monday, the heavens opened, the rains came, and then, after a dramatic morning, this year’s chosen one dropped from the sky.

California Chrome, the favorite for the 140th Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs, arrived from California around midday after a tumultuous morning here that saw two of his rivals work, separated by a suspension in training necessitated by fierce lightning in the area.

Fortunately, California Chrome arrived without incident, both Tapiture and Hoppertunity safely got through their final drills, and Derby Week, which started out underwater, finally got underway.

Tapiture was scheduled to work around 6 a.m. Eastern on Monday, but because rain had started to fall, trainer Steve Asmussen waited a bit longer to go, desirous of evaluating how his first set of horses trained. Satisfied, Asmussen, astride a pony, headed out to the track with Tapiture, but then the rain sharply intensified, the thunder crackled, and by the time Tapiture was easing into his work, lightning was added to the mix.

“I was thinking of that scene in ‘Caddyshack,’ the one with the priest,” Asmussen said later. “He’s struck by lightning, so we did better.”

Tapiture worked by himself under exercise rider Abel Flores and went a half-mile on the sloppy surface in 50.16 seconds, according to Daily Racing Form .

I was thinking of that scene in ‘Caddyshack,’ the one with the priest. He’s struck by lightning, so we did better.

Trainer Steve Asmussen

“Abel did a tremendous job, considering the circumstances,” said Asmussen, who said he felt the racing surface was holding up well at that time. “The footing was good. After the fact, I’m extremely relieved.”

Only minutes after Tapiture left the track, the lightning moved closer to the track, so close that horses were ordered off it, and no more were allowed onto the track. Once that front moved through, tractors came onto the track and floated the surface, removing much of the standing water. After a 37-minute delay, the track was reopened for training.

There usually is a scheduled break later in the morning, around 8, immediately after which the track is restricted for 15 minutes to horses preparing for the Derby or Kentucky Oaks. Since the unscheduled break Monday was to be the only break, trainer Bob Baffert decided not to wait an hour until the 8:30-8:45 window, and got Hoppertunity onto the track to get in his work over a surface that was still relatively fresh.

Hoppertunity, with jockey Martin Garcia aboard, worked five furlongs in company in 1:01.25, then galloped out another quarter-mile.

“Everything went well,” Baffert said. “When they announced they were only going to renovate it the one time, I got him out. I wanted to get him over a nice, clean track. We found a little window and got the work in. I’m relieved.”

Echoing Asmussen, Baffert said he thought the surface was in good shape despite the heavy rain.

“The track was nice and firm. It was just perfect,” he said.


California Chrome, Tapiture, and Hoppertunity are among more than 20 runners who are expected to be entered Wednesday in the Derby. The starting field is limited to 20, but up to four also-eligibles are allowed to be entered Wednesday.

Posts will be drawn Wednesday. Those on the also-eligible list would have until scratch time, 9 a.m. Friday, to get in.

The field is determined by points earned in designated races. If runners have the same number of points, earnings in non-restricted stakes are the tiebreaker.

The prospective field underwent significant change Sunday, when Ring Weekend – who had been 14th on the points list – came out because of illness, allowing Commanding Curve to secure the 20th spot.

Bayern would have been 21st, but, as expected, he was officially removed following the Derby Trial on Saturday night.

That moved Pablo Del Monte into the 21st spot, and he is expected to be entered in the hope of drawing into the race by Friday, if not sooner.

Social Inclusion is 22nd, but as of Monday afternoon, owner Ron Sanchez said he was unlikely to come to Churchill Downs from Florida unless there were enough developments by Tuesday to guarantee him a spot in the 20-horse starting field.

Big Bazinga is 23rd, and he is here and also expected to be entered with the hope of drawing in.

The weather that blew through here Monday was a preview of coming attractions, at least in the near term. According to The Weather Channel, there was a 100 percent chance of rain Monday night, including scattered thunderstorms, and storms were forecast for Tuesday, too, some severe.

Fortunately, the forecast for the rest of the week was encouraging, with drier and cooler weather, including a high of 65 on Derby Day.

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch


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