Maker always leans toward green at Kentucky Downs

Published 3:57 pm Thursday, August 31, 2023

By JENNIE REES, Special to the Daily News

FRANKLIN – Mike Maker had no idea what percentage of his career success was on grass, just that it was a lot. So here are some numbers:

Maker is Kentucky Downs’ all-time winningest trainer, getting his 80th victory when he won Thursday’s opener with the 2-year-old first-time starter Buttercream Babe. Heading into the day, Maker had 1,277 career victories over the last five years – with 726 coming on turf for 57 percent, according to Brisnet statistics. To put that in perspective, turf races accounted for 14% of all racing in the United States and Canada in 2022: Of the 37,730 races overall held on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces last season, only 5,442 were on the grass, according to The Jockey Cub.

Since he began training full-time in 2003, Maker has won 1,411 turf races – or 44% of his 3,204 victories during that span through Wednesday. (Maker won 13 races in 1993, his first as a trainer of record, then didn’t train again until he went 0 for 3 in 1999. Equibase statistics are only filtered by surface, stakes, age, sexes etc. since 2000.)

Of Maker’s $155.8 million in career purse earnings since 2003, $86 million – or 55% – have been on turf. Of his 406 stakes wins, 231 have been on turf during that span. That includes 75 graded-stakes victories on turf out of his overall total of 121 on all surfaces.

His reaction? “Means I’ve got a very unbalanced stable,” Maker said with a laugh.

An imbalance that has served him very well, no place more so than the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs, where last year his horses set records for a single meet with 12 wins and more than $2.3 million purse earnings.

Even as the racing has gotten tougher, Maker is always in the hunt. That includes 2019, when Maker didn’t win the title, winning three races, but had a record 14 seconds that led the way to $1.4 million in purse earnings, almost double the next closest trainer’s bankroll.

“I have a lot of fond memories there every year – and looking to add to it,” he said. “We’ve had plenty (of entries), but we’ve had plenty excluded (in overflow fields). We have a lot more 2-year-olds than we’ve had. So hopefully we can get some in.”

Maker had six horses entered for Thursday, plus six more Saturday and seven on Sunday. No trainer has started more horses at Kentucky Downs than Maker’s 472 after Thursday’s first race Wesley Ward is second with 226 starters.

He will shoot for repeats in two of the meet’s biggest stakes: Saturday’s $2 million Mint Millions (formerly the Mint Million until its purse was doubled) and the $1.7 million FanDuel Kentucky Turf Cup. Maker finished 1-2 in the Mint Million last year with Somelikeithotbrown and Atone. The New York-bred Somelikeithotbrown – who only ran in the Mint Million last year because it wound up being delayed a week – is sitting it out this year, but runner-up Atone is back.

The 6-year-old Atone was one of several Maker horses earning their first Grade 1 victories this year, that coming in Gulfstream Park’s Pegasus World Cup Turf. off a 2 1/2-month break, Atone pressed the pace in Colonial Downs’ 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million (G1) before tiring to 11.

“That’s why he sort of had a break,” Maker said of running Atone back in three weeks. “In the Arlington Million, he put himself in contention at the quarter pole and kind of retrenched with no excuse. Hopefully the cutback in distance will do the trick.”

Maker also is running minor stakes-winner Max K.O. in the Mint Millions. He’ll be a long shot, having finished sixth in the Ellis Park prep, but lost by only three lengths. His credential is that he is 2 for 2 at Kentucky Downs, albeit against allowance and starter-allowance company. “He’s a horse for the course, likes the one turn,” Maker said. “He’ll have to step it up against the competition, but he’s run well here in the past.”

Red Knight returns at age 9 to defend last year’s Kentucky Turf Cup at 1 1/2 miles. Three races ago he earned his first Grade 1 victory in Belmont Park’s Man o’ War. In his last start, Red Knight rallied to finish a good third in Monmouth Park’s United Nations, a race Maker won as Therapist earned his first Grade 1 at age 8.

Maker routinely runs multiple horses in the Kentucky Turf Cup, a race he has won a record five times since 2015. He also plans to run 10-time winner Me and Mr. C, who earned a fees-paid spot in the stakes by virtue of victory in Ellis Park’s $250,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Cup. “We’re running at least three and maybe four,” he said.

Maker’s other stakes horses include Delaware’s Kent Stakes winner Really Good in Sunday’s $1 million National Thoroughbred League Dueling Grounds Derby; Indiana maiden winner Value Engineer in the $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile on Sept. 10; and Saratoga’s off-the-turf Skidmore winner Ship Cadet and Saratoga turf maiden winner Jimmythetooth in the $500,000 Pepsi Juvenile Sprint on Sept. 13.

Caton Bredar on Thursday’s card

Caton Bredar is back as Kentucky Downs’ racing analyst. Her thoughts on Thursday’s opening card:

“It’s a great betting card just from the standpoint that you don’t have that many horses who are horses for courses,” she said. “Yes, Mike Maker is always a factor. But I can’t say that he necessarily has the strongest entrance on that first day. You kind of go in it thinking riders like Tyler Gaffalione and Joel Rosario are loaded as far as choices. But that doesn’t always mean they’ve chosen the right horse that’s going to handle the track. I thought there was a lot of opportunities. The FanDuel Tapit, you’ve got horses who are going to take money that I think you can poke holes in. I mean, a horse like (last year’s Dueling Grounds Derby winner) Kitodan coming back. But there are a lot of questions when you have one race coming back after almost a year, and it wasn’t a good one.

“Plus there are quite a few maiden races. I have to say, sometimes you have those maiden races that just jump off the page. In this case, there are very usual pedigrees, there are a lot of good pedigrees, but there’s nobody you’re going to say automatically, ‘Oh, this is a horse that’s going to excel at Kentucky Downs.’”

Bredar thinks part of that is because people are increasingly happy to experiment with a horse on grass because of the huge potential rewards.

“I think more now this year than has been in the past,” she said. “Each year you see more and more people just taking a chance and seeing with their first-time starter, if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go for it now when the purse is so big and it’s an unknown for everybody. But that makes it great to me. Also, there are some sires who probably haven’t had as many opportunities on the grass up to now. Like Gun Runner. To me, he does everything, gets winners on all surfaces. But I wouldn’t say that grass runners were his strongest suit. But maybe that’s a product of what we’ve seen up to now. Because we’re seeing a lot more Gun Runners on turf.

“I was really actually surprised that there were fewer of what we think of as the traditional turf pedigrees. But to me, that makes it even better because it’s more of an opportunity as far as the prices in wagering. I’d have trouble in picking the favorite in some of these races, honestly.”{&end}