Summertime Views - By Evan Hammonds

To be honest, we had little idea what would happen when Keeneland announced it would hold a five-day mid-July meeting to take the place of its April program that had been scuttled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While hoping for the best for the one-of-a-kind summer soiree, there appeared to be several obstacles in the way, yet the Keeneland Association pulled off an unforgettable stand.

It’s amazing what a three-day stakes schedule featuring five grade 1 races and a gaggle of grade 2s and grade 3s will do to bring in the best horses and the brightest horsemen (see page 42). We wondered how it might play out, with Belmont’s late start in early June, Del Mar opening July 11, and the definitive Saratoga meet on the horizon, but the stakes team headed by Ben Huffman was able to bring in the talent.

That talent was able to produce “Fast Times at Keeneland High” with stakes and track marks falling with remarkable consistency.

Three standards fell in consecutive races. Amy Dunne, Brenda Miley, Westrock Stables, and Jean Wilkinson’s Leinster won the Shaker­town Stakes (G2T) in a course record 1:00.86 for 51⁄2 furlongs. Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Madaket Stables’ Speech lowered the 11⁄16-mile track mark to 1:41.26 after winning the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1). And the stellar Rushing Fall lowered the 11⁄16-mile mark on turf to 1:39.02 with her score in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T). In all, three track and three course records were set.

“When they announced their schedule of races, I think everybody circled those dates, and it gave them enough time to come up with a plan of action,” said Jacob West, vice president of bloodstock for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. “When you give the best trainers in the world that much time to dial their horses in, it ends up with more track records falling and things like that.

“The real horses that showed up in these races, it wasn’t like they got lucky with trips or something like that. When you walked into the starting gate and you looked left or right, there were some serious horses around you. The bottom line is there were really good horses going across the Keeneland turf and dirt tracks, and we saw some very good horses put up spectacular performances. It’s a credit to Keeneland for putting that together.”

And Keeneland did it with owners being allowed to watch their horses run.

“It’s hard to keep the owners away from their horses. That’s the heartbeat of the whole industry—people who love animals,” West said. “It was incredible that they let the owners in. It was nice to be back at a racetrack and put some money through the windows and be able to hoot and yell in person instead of screaming at my TV as I’ve been doing for the last couple of months.”

And West wasn’t the only one putting money through the windows.

Keeneland reported the July 8-12 meet handled more than $63 million with an average daily all-sources handle of $12,659,866. The July 11 card, which handled $23,834,972, was second only to last year’s Toyota Blue Grass day program.

That’s also a testament to an industry that has seen handle hold its own in comparison to last year, despite a clear lack of on-track handle due to COVID-19. It’s proof positive that racing has better technology and infrastructure than we might think. The strength of TVG, FOX Sports Network, and NBC Sports, along with the ability to wager though mobile platforms, has our sport up to speed. We’ve been able to garner a deeper customer bench as other sports have been sidelined.

The down note of Keeneland’s summer weekend has been the emergence of jockeys who have ridden at the track testing positive for COVID-19. Luis Saez was first, testing positive July 10 after riding in New York, California, and Indiana before riding at Keeneland, and later Flavien Prat, who tested positive July 12 after riding in six races at Keeneland July 11. West Coast riders Martin Garcia and Victor Espinoza have also tested positive.

Is jetting from track to track, day to day a bit cavalier? We think so, despite the proper protocols in place.

If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic, it is that the rules of engagement change day to day and are different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Sound familiar?

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