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Latonia in 1924
Jim Beam Stakes - From Riches to Rags to Riches

By: Ron Hale

The Jim Beam Stakes (Gr. II) at Turfway Park in Florence, KY, has in recent years become a major stepping stone to the Spring three-year-old classics. Five years ago, Lil E. Tee became the first Jim Beam winner to go on to win the Kentucky Derby. A year earlier, Hansel had won the Beam enroute to victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes

The rise in prominence of the Jim Beam brings racing in Northern Kentucky full circle. Up until 1987, Turfway Park was named Latonia Race Course, having opened in 1959 not far from the sight (in Covington, KY) of Old Latonia which was one of the mid-west's premier racecourses 100 years ago. Old Latonia was sold to Sohio and torn down during World War II.

Old Latonia was the site for many years of the Latonia Derby. In fact, in the late 1800s, it was considered by many a more important three-year-old fixture than the Kentucky Derby. Scan the record of many old Kentucky Derby winners and you will see that they also contested the Latonia Derby. Riley (1890) won in Louisville but was second at Latonia. Kingman (1891), Halma (1895), Ben Brush (1896), Lieut. Gibson (1900), Elwood (1904) and Sir Huon (1906) were among the early Kentucky Derby winners to also annex the Latonia Derby.

Latonia in the 1930's By the time the Thoroughbreds returned to new Latonia in 1959, racing in Northern Kentucky (Latonia is about 15 miles from Cincinnati) consisted mostly of cheap claimers. No one in the sport in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s would have dreamed of seriously using Latonia as a place to train a horse for the Spring classics.

All that began to change in the 1980s. The Spiral Stakes became the new version of the old Latonia Derby. It was inaugurated in 1972 with a purse of $15,000-added. Gradually, by 1981, it rose to $50,000-added. Jim Beam Distillery joined as a sponsor in 1982 and the purse was increased to $150,000. The race was now known as the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes. And trainers began to use it as a stepping stone to the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

In 1983, Marfa, who would go favored in the Kentucky Derby, won the $200,000 Jim Beam for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The filly Lucky Lucky Lucky, who finished 5th in the Beam, went on to win the Kentucky Oaks.

In 1984, the Spiral was dropped and the race officially became just the Jim Beam Stakes. The purse was raised to $300,000.

Latonia owner Jerry Carroll changed the name of the track to Turfway Park in 1987 and began extensive renovations. The Jim Beam purse was raised to $500,000. A year later, the race was accorded Grade II status.

Summer Squall won the Beam in 1990 enroute to favoritism in the Kentucky Derby (he ran second) and a win in the Preakness. Hansel set a track record on a concrete-hard surface in 1991 (1:46 3/5). Hansel was favored in the Kentucky Derby but finished out of the money. As mentioned, he won the Preakness and Belmont.

Lil E. Tee won the Beam/Kentucky Derby in 1992. The following year, Prairie Bayou won the Jim Beam, which now was the richest prep race ($600,000) to the Spring classics. Prairie Bayou was favored in the Derby, but finished second. He went on to win the Preakness.

Serena's Song won the 1995 Beam. She went on to become the richest filly/mare in the sport. Last year, Roar made a brief appearance on the Triple Crown scene with a victory in the Beam. In the meantime, Santa Anita, feeling the heat from being shown up by a tiny track in Northern Kentucky, upped the purse of the Santa Anita Derby (Gr. I) to $750,000 -- something that Turfway and the Jim Beam Distillery have not been willing to match.

© 1997, Ron Hale

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