Giving thanks for a great week of racing

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 25th, 2014

If asked what their favorite time on the calendar is, most racing fans would gravitate toward the obvious. The "Family Feud" type survey would undoubtedly say the Triple Crown and its preceding run-up of preps, Saratoga and Del Mar, and the Breeders' Cup.

Those are all great, of course, and quite a busy time for us poor turf scribes. However, I have found much to like about the evolution of Thanksgiving weekend as a premier time of racing action.

With more football than just games involving the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, and with holiday shopping less of an afterthought to many while they gorge on turkey and pumpkin pie, a lot has encroached already on traditional Thanksgiving festivities. Thoroughbred racing has been no different, but I would argue this has been for the betterment of the sport.

To see how far we've come, let's turn back the clock 50 years. What was going on in the racing world during Thanksgiving week in 1964?

First, let's start with what was not going on. By that point racing had already wound down for the year on top circuits like New Jersey and Chicago. Major racing in Kentucky, most recently held at Churchill Downs, was also done for the season.

There had been no significant racing in Southern California since the end of Del Mar in September and there would not be until Santa Anita re-opened on December 26. Back then racing in northern and southern California rarely overlapped, so Bay Meadows, near San Francisco, was the only track in the state offering Thoroughbred action.

Continuing with the theme of seasonal racing, Thanksgiving marked the opening day of racing in the south. Fair Grounds in New Orleans kicked off its long winter meet on that day, while Tropical Park commenced the racing season in Miami, which involved rotating dates among three tracks and was less than six months in duration.

To see any significant stakes that weekend, one had to be either at Aqueduct or Pimlico. Aqueduct ran the Firenze Handicap (now the Personal Ensign and run at Saratoga) on Thanksgiving, and the 1 5/8-mile Gallant Fox Handicap on Saturday. That marathon had a field of five older horses.

At Pimlico they ran the Dixie Handicap (now run on the Preakness undercard) at 1 1/2 miles over a very soft turf on Thanksgiving, and on Saturday was the lucrative Pimlico Futurity for two-year-olds. Unfortunately, a mere field of four reduced that race to a betless exhibition.

We can all be thankful that the portions are much more generous these days. A royal feast of stakes action, and the ability to watch and bet (legally) on them, has made the modern holiday weekend a much better one for racing than that of yesteryear. Here are some of the offerings on this week's table:

1. TWO-YEAR-OLDS: Looking for a hot Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks prospect for next year? The Remsen and Demoiselle at Aqueduct and the Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod at Churchill Downs, all on Saturday, usually give prognosticators plenty to chew on.

2. CLARK HANDICAP: The premier race for older horses at Churchill Downs' fall meet has greatly risen in stature the past 15-20 years. Three-year-olds Surfside and Will Take Charge both clinched divisional championships by winning it, while classic winners Silver Charm and Shackleford, and future champions Saint Liam, Blame, and Wise Dan, all won the nine-furlong race.

3. CIGAR MILE: One of the best races of its kind all year, and often one of the best to wager on, the field for the signature race of Aqueduct's fall meet is usually a melting pot of sprinters, milers, and routers of all ages, plus the occasional filly (e.g. Groupie Doll).

4. TURF FESTIVAL: Del Mar has adopted the Autumn Turf Festival from the now-defunct Hollywood Park and will host the Hollywood Derby (featuring California Chrome) and the Matriarch for fillies and mares this weekend. Sprinkle in a pair of stakes for two-year-olds, the Hollywood Turf Cup, and the Seabiscuit Handicap (formerly the Citation) and you have an outstanding weekend of grass action contested in Chamber of Commerce weather.

5. HISTORIC RACES: They can be of varying quality from year to year, but races like the Falls City Handicap, Fall Highweight Handicap and Hawthorne Gold Cup continue to be solid betting races and throw up good winners. Thursday's Falls City, in particular, is enhanced by the presence of leading older mare Don't Tell Sophia.

6. OPENINGS: After last weekend's "cold" opening, Fair Grounds will host a traditional program on Thanksgiving featuring the eponymous six-furlong handicap that is one of the best sprints of the meet. On Saturday, the increasingly popular Tampa Bay Downs will have one of its earliest openings in recent memory.

7. JAPAN CUP: For a little international flavor, one of the richest races in the world will be contested at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday (between midnight and 2 a.m. in the eastern U.S.). Enlightened practices now allow American racing fans to watch and wager on one of the great spectacles in Asian racing on An international cast, including reigning Canadian Horse of the Year Up With the Birds, will travel 1 1/2 miles on the turf.

As you can see, blessings abound throughout the racing world this week. It's certainly one of my favorite times of the year.