Ellis Park leading riders hoping momentum carries to Kentucky Downs

Brian Hernandez Jr. guided Lull to victory in the 2018 Kentucky Downs Ladies Sprint for New York trainer Christophe Clement. Kentucky Downs photo

FRANKLIN, Ky. (Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021) — Brian Hernandez Jr. is Kentucky Downs’ all-time winningest rider with 51 victories, seven more than second-place Florent Geroux and nine more than third-place Julien Leparoux. Each jockey has won the Kentucky Downs meet title twice.

To show how strong the Kentucky Downs riding colony has become, those three riders last year combined for six wins. And to show how strong the money is at the all-grass meet that opens Sunday, Geroux’s mounts accrued more than $1 million in purse earnings, with one of his two victories coming in the $1 million Calumet Turf Cup aboard Arklow.

The all-grass FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs continues Labor Day Monday and Sept. 8, 9, 11 and 12 over the unique 1 5/16-mile, undulating course. More than $15 million is scheduled to be paid out to horsemen over the six days.

But as the money has escalated, so has the competition to get it. The Kentucky Downs jockey colony has become arguably the deepest in the country. Not only is there an increasingly talented assembly of Kentucky-based jockeys, but each year seems to attract more top riders from New York and California.

Last year’s additions included East Coast-based Irad Ortiz Jr., the three-time reigning Eclipse Award jockey who led North America in both wins and purse earnings during those years, and rising West Coast star Umberto Rispoli. They joined Ortiz’s brother Jose, Joel Rosario and Hall of Famer Javier Castellano among jockeys who in recent years made Kentucky Downs a major stop on their circuit. Others such as Hall of Famer John Velazquez and Flavien Prat began coming for part of the meet. This year Luis Saez, on the verge of his first Saratoga riding title, is expected to be a force after riding only a handful of horses in the past.

“It’s from winning all those races before the money got good,” Hernandez said of his status as Kentucky Downs’ career win leader. “It’s getting tougher. Now you’re getting guys like the Ortiz brothers. Those guys from New York used to not come, so we’d pick up horses for the New York trainers. Now you’re getting guys following their horses down there because the money is so good. Now you’re riding for the guys you ride for every day, rather than picking up horses. It’s just tougher competition.”

Besides the richest purses in America, Kentucky Downs is appealing to East and West Coast jockeys because there is no major racing in New York or California during the meet’s final four days. In just four years, Jose Ortiz already ranks No. 6 in Kentucky Downs career victories at 30.

“Now it’s all about Kentucky Downs,” Hernandez said. “Everybody is going to be there. You give away that kind of money, people want to be there.”

Hernandez does bring momentum in the Kentucky Downs meet. He is

poised to win his second Ellis Park riding title, having earned the 2012 crown. Hernandez’ 23 wins at Ellis provide a seven-win cushion over Geroux, Adam Beschizza and Chris Landeros, each with 16 with two days left in the meet.

Hernandez is scheduled to ride seven races Sunday, including Royal Prince in the $750,000 Big Ass Fans Dueling Grounds Derby and Oliviaofthedesert in the $500,000 Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Oaks. Hernandez finished third on Oliviaofthedesert in last year’s Juvenile Fillies at Kentucky Downs. He rides one of the favorites for Monday’s $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in Tiz the Bomb, a 14-length maiden winner at Ellis Park.

Beschizza, who grew up around Great Britain’s courses that are distinctive in their differences, fell in love with Kentucky Downs from the time he first rode there in 2018. He won only one race, but his five seconds included defeats by a head in a pair of $400,000 stakes. He won five races the next year.

“It’s nice to be riding races more on the patient side, especially races more than a mile,” he said of the course. “You’ve still got to have the horse. You’ve got to have horses that can lengthen. We get from the three-eighths to the bump in the hill, then it kinks around twice once you turn into the straight. A lot of horses think they’re done once they get to that first kink, and you’ve still got another sixteenth of a mile. You see a lot of races won or lost there.”

“My first year there, not a lot of New York jockeys were there,” Beschizza continued. “None of them really seemed to want to be there. They’d make it for maybe a day. It was all the Kentucky boys. Then the Ortiz brothers started noticing it. Last year everybody and their mother was there.”

Beschizza comes in to Kentucky Downs on the heels of a huge summer. His 16 Ellis victories reflect five stakes, easily tops at the meet. He’ll ride several of those stakes-winners back at Kentucky Downs: Kentucky Downs TVG Preview Turf Sprint winner Born Great, who won twice in a week at Kentucky Downs last year; Shesonthewarpath, who captured two stakes at Ellis, including the Preview Ladies Turf; and New Boss, who took the Pea Patch Overnight Stakes taken off the turf after a downpour hit when the horses were in the paddock.

Born Great goes in the $1 million, Grade 2 FanDuel Turf Sprint, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race whose winner gets a fees-paid spot in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1). Shesonthewarpath goes in the $750,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf (G3), which like the FanDuel Turf Sprint is part of a sensational Sept. 11 card featuring five graded stakes. New Boss is set to run in the $500,000 Nelson’s Green Brier Whiskey Music City on Sept. 12.

Beschizza is named to ride 10 of 11 races Sunday, including Viburnum in the Dueling Grounds Oaks and Palazzi in the Dueling Grounds Oaks. He rides seven horses Monday.

Landeros likewise has enjoyed his best Ellis meet to date, adding 10 seconds and 11 thirds to his 16 wins while missing several days to ride out-of-state stakes. He also won Wednesday’s $100,000 Brookmeade Stakes on Urban Fairytale at Colonial Downs.

“We’ll see what gets in, luck of the draw,” Landeros said last week of Kentucky Downs. “I absolutely love it. You can have a horse that’s not the best-looking on paper but loves that surface and the ground and just airs. You go in there and you have options, more than a normal flat track.

“I’m looking forward to it. Just the up and down hills, I love it. For me, I just let the horse find their own stride on it. When you have the horse and they’re handling it, oh my gosh, it’s so much fun. I just hope I can ride every day.”

He’s off to a solid start there, riding five horses on Sunday, including Modern Science in the Dueling Grounds Derby, and three on Monday. Landeros acknowledged that the influx of out-of-state jockeys “makes it hard.”

“But there’s a lot of money to be made, so they’re going to come and try to get what they can,” he said. “And it fits their schedule, with Saratoga over on Labor Day. Hopefully our local guys will give us a shot, and we’ll just try to do the best we can.”

Ward seeks to remain only trainer to win Juvenile Sprint

Trainer Wesley Ward will try to win next Thursday’s $500,000 Global Tote Juvenile Sprint for the fourth time in the 6 1/2-furlong stakes’ four runnings. And he’ll try to win it for the third time with a filly, with Keeneland maiden-winner Kaufymaker and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez named to ride. Kaufymaker has run twice, finishing eighth in the Group 2 Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. But Ward has a pattern of winning at Kentucky Downs with horses who got beat at Royal Ascot.

Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse could have the horse to beat in European import Masseto, who was fourth in the Coventry in between finishing second and third in a pair of group stakes in Ireland. Other contenders include impressive Ellis maiden-winner Detroit City, Saratoga’s off-the-turf Skidmore runner-up Pure Panic, Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Bashford Manor runner-up Vodka N Water and Saratoga maiden-winner Red Danger.

Graded stakes-winners Tonalist’s Shape (in her turf debut), Sweet Melania and English Affair are among a capacity field of 12 in the $400,000 One Dreamer for fillies and mares who haven’t won a stakes in 2021. Others include stakes-winners Dominga, Pass the Plate, Hendy Woods and I’llhandalthecash.

Ellis Park leading riders hoping momentum carries to Kentucky Downs - Cumberland Run