Starting with a full allotment of Road to the Kentucky Derby points for its signature race, things are looking up for the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) and its host track, Turfway Park racing and gaming.
The track, at this point, is only a track. The razed grandstand is being replaced by a new facility that Turfway broke ground on a week ago. Still, even without that grandstand or fans, the Jeff Ruby will go forward Saturday with the important foundation of those aforementioned Derby qualifying points.
In terms of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), the Jeff Ruby returns to the main stage this season. It will offer top tier Road to the Kentucky Derby points of 100-40-20-10 to its top four finishers. That structure is equal to any Derby prep race out there, on par with the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1), and other major preps in the points system used to determine the Derby field.
The upgrade in points follows the purchase of Turfway by Churchill Downs Inc. in October 2019. While it's fair to question why a change in track ownership should spur a change in race stature in terms of qualifying points--the race in recent years had seen its points reduced to just 20-8-4-2--this move should help return the race to relevance on the Derby trail.
While the synthetic surface at Turfway likely will dissuade some of the country's established dirt runners from entering the Jeff Ruby, I like the idea that there's a major prep on a synthetic surface. It's a great opportunity for horses who have shown success on the many synthetic surfaces throughout the country, as well as Woodbine, or on turf, to qualify to take a shot on the dirt in the Derby.
It's the path Animal Kingdom blazed to Derby victory in 2011 when the son of Leroidesanimaux (BRZ) won his stakes debut in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (the Jeff Ruby has had many changing names thanks to sponsorships that have included Jim Beam and Gallery Furniture), after two runner-up finishes and a win racing on synthetic surfaces and turf.
That season was before Churchill Downs had put the points system in place but the $285,000 in graded stakes earnings (the Spiral featured a $500,000 purse in 2011) secured Animal Kingdom a spot in the Derby. After an impressive workout on the Churchill dirt a week before the Derby, trainer Graham Motion and owner Team Valor decided to enter. Animal Kingdom would deliver a powerful stretch run to win by 2 3/4 lengths.
The 100-40-20-10 format ensures this year's Jeff Ruby winner a spot in the Derby field, if desired. Trainer Billy Morey conditions Hush of a Storm, who enters the Jeff Ruby off three straight wins, including a clear victory in the prep race, the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, where he earned 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. Morey likes that Churchill has provided this path to the Derby.
"It's great to see Churchill support the racing here at Turfway Park; the horsemen who stay in Kentucky," Morey said. "The points and the commitment to purses is helping the year-long circuit."
Turfway Park general manager Chip Bach also welcomes the points upgrade.
"It just demonstrates the commitment that Churchill has for this track," Bach said. "They know that this track is going to be vital; a very vital part of the Thoroughbred horse racing picture in Kentucky. I just can't say enough about how excited I am to be able to offer those type of points for our big race and to see what our big race looks like two, three, and four years from now."
Beyond the winner being ensured a spot in the Derby field if desired, the current points system likely also ensures the runner-up a spot. Granted, that may be a bit much for a $250,000 race on a synthetic surface but, like Bach mentioned, keep an eye on where this race is headed in the upcoming years.
It's not a reach to think that this race will soon see a purse upgrade as historical horse racing machines have come online at Turfway-affiliated Newport City Gaming and will be added at the track when the new facility is completed in the spring or summer of 2022. CDI already has upgraded the overnight purses at Turfway, which has resulted in big fields and strong handle. It made sense to first boost the everyday racing. Increased purses for stakes like the Jeff Ruby will soon follow.
"We anticipate our purse structure to be phenomenal," Bach said. "With that 100 points to the winner structure for the Jeff Ruby, we will make sure that the race has a purse structure similar to other points races of that level at other tracks."
There also is still some possibility that Turfway could add a dirt oval--an option Bach said is being thought about. If the Jeff Ruby were switched to dirt, that would eliminate the race as an opportunity for turf and synthetic horses, but it would figure to draw some of the top dirt horses in the country. When you think about a dirt race, with that points structure, an increased purse, and a prime spot on the calendar considering how horses are prepared for the Derby these days, it could return the Jeff Ruby to a major stop on the Derby trail.
The Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area deserves a major Derby prep race and those fans have supported this race when it held that stature. It's an area that routinely generates strong television ratings for racing's major events and supports a pair of tracks in Turfway and Belterra Park. Among the stars to win the Jeff Ruby, under its various names, have been Derby winners Animal Kingdom and Lil E. Tee, classic winners Hansel, Prairie Bayou, and Summer Squall, as well as champion 3-year-old filly Serena's Song.
It's the type of event that fans would be willing to pay for admission and premium seating, which would benefit Turfway/CDI. Another big race day--or in this case restoration of a big race day--can only be a good thing.