By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FLORENCE - Cincinnati has Reds' Opening Day. Louisville has the Kentucky Derby. Indianapolis has the 500.
Northern Kentucky has the Lane's End.
Over the last 32 years, Turfway Park's annual stakes race has grown from a small community event to a major slot on the thoroughbred horse racing schedule, and an A-list party stop on the local social circuit.
IF YOU GO
What: Lane's End Stakes.
Where: Turfway Park, 7500 Turfway Road, Florence.
When: First race 12:30 p.m. Saturday; Lane's End featured stakes race, about 4:15 p.m.
Purse: $500,000, $300,000 to winner.
Cost: Maker's Mark VIP Tent $150; general admission $10; parking free.
Contact: (859) 371-0200.
Information: www.lanesendstakes.com.Race week events at Turfway Park:
Monday: Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association dinner (invitation only)
Tuesday: 14th annual Crawfish Boil, 6-10 p.m., second floor Chalk Room. $5 donation to charity.
Thursday: Call to the Post Luncheon, noon, third-floor Terrace Room. Tickets $35, available by calling (859) 647-4710 or (859)-815-2808.
Friday: FasTrack Rewards V.I.P. Party (invitation only).
Saturday: Lane's End Stakes.
"It really is our Kentucky Derby," said Turfway Park President Bob Elliston. "It's a great race, and it's always a pretty good party."
A full day of racing will begin at 12:30 p.m. Saturdayand culminate with the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes just after 4 p.m. A crowd of about 20,000 is expected in the raucous grandstands and swanky Maker's Mark VIP Tent, where tickets go for $150 and fans roll out their spring best to see and be seen.
"As a social outing it's great," said Kevin Canafax, an executive from Fidelity Investments in Covington, which has used the VIP tent in past years to entertain clients and top management.
"Really, it's great for just about every crowd - social, business, political, the nonprofits. It's an exciting event, and it's enjoyable to be able to have a day of racing and talk business in a very informal setting."
As a race, the Lane's End - named for the Woodford County horse farm that is the primary sponsor - has become one of the top five or six races in the country, said Hall of Fame jockey and Boone County resident Steve Cauthen.
The race is a Kentucky Derby prep race for 3-year olds, meaning the winner gets to run in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
"You look at the Santa Anita Derby, the Florida Derby, the Bluegrass Derby, the Wood Memorial," said Cauthen, a Turfway consultant. "Because it is a (Kentucky Derby) prep race, the Lane's End is now recognized with those types of races. So you're going to see some of the top contenders in Florence on Saturday."
The favorite in this year's race could be Kentucky-bred Birdstone, a Kentucky Derby contender trained by Nick Zito and ridden by Jerry Bailey.
"Birdstone is a horse with a tremendous pedigree that most folks put in the top three in the country," Elliston said. But as in many high-stakes races, the favorites don't always finish first.
Since 1982 the Lane's End favorite has won just eight times, the last being Event of the Year in 1998. Last year's favorite, Lion Tamer, finished fourth. And only one horse took the Run for the Roses, 1992 Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee.
Over the years the name of the race has changed, usually depending on the sponsor.
In the early 1970s John Battaglia, general manager of what was then known as Latonia Race Course, created the Derby prep race. According to Turfway's official history, he saw the horses "spiraling up" from an early spring run to the Kentucky Derby. Thus, the Spiral Stakes was born.
From 1982 to 1998, Kentucky bourbon producer Jim Beam sponsored the race. Purses grew in that time from $193,000 to $600,000.
In 1999, Jim Beam dropped out and GalleryFurniture.com stepped in as the sponsor. The Houston furniture company drew some snickers when it placed sofas around the VIP tent on race day.
But GalleryFurniture.com also put up the biggest purse in the race's history, $750,000.
Lane's End, owned by Wil Farish, President Bush's ambassador to England, took over sponsorship of the race in 2002.
Charitable events have always been a big part of the prerace activities during the week leading up to race day.
Monte Carlo games, a crawfish boil, dinners and more will raise money for charities that include Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, Steinford Toy Foundation and Parish Kitchen in Covington.
Money will also go to the Michael Rowland Fund, to benefit the family of the jockey who died in a Feb. 9 fall while riding at Turfway.
Temperatures of 55 degrees under sunny skies brought out a crowd of 20,126 last year, resulting in a total handle - the amount of money bet - of $6,917,498 throughout the day. More than $1.6 million was bet on the Lane's End, won last year by 30-1 shot New York Hero.
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