Jockey Tyler Gaffalione embracing homecoming during rich Kentucky Downs meet

Tyler Gaffalione won’t be spending much time on the ground in the upcoming days. He’ll be flying back and forth between the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs and the remaining days at Saratoga when Kentucky Downs doesn’t race.

When he’s not at the airport or in flight, Gaffalione will mostly be on horseback. He was named to ride 31 of Kentucky Downs’ 33 races spread over Thursday’s opening-day card, Saturday and Sunday. He was to ride at Saratoga on Friday and Labor Day, before returning to Kentucky for the remainder of this meet as well as Churchill Downs and Keeneland.

And that’s how Gaffalione likes it. Since winning three races in his first Kentucky Downs meet in 2017 to finish fifth, Gaffalione has never been worse than third in the standings — including the 2020 title with 11 wins and last year’s crown with nine. But he also had a record 17 second-place finishes, including in six stakes.

“I love to ride there,” said Gaffalione, who for several years has made Kentucky his home. “It’s one of my favorite courses to ride. I’ve always been a big fan of Kentucky Downs. But now, it’s on the back end of Saratoga when we’re coming back home. It’s always something to look forward to, coming to Kentucky Downs and getting back home after a long summer.

“It’s special to me because we always bring my family out. My sister lives in Tennessee. She has two kids. My father comes to the races. My wife. It’s just great for the family. They can get close to the action. It’s fun. As much as we love Saratoga and love competing there, Kentucky is our home. Most of our business is there. It’s kind of getting back into the swing of things, getting ready for Churchill and Keeneland.”

The FanDuel meet began Thursday. Kentucky Downs also runs this Saturday, Sunday and Sept. 7, 9, 10 and 13 over the distinctive kidney-shaped and undulating course. First post is 12:30 p.m. CDT every day except for 11:30 a.m. CDT on Sept. 9. General admission is free in front of the Mint Gaming Hall and the top of the stretch with free tailgating into the far turn. Reserved seating can also be purchased in the FanDuel VIP Chalet and the open-air Finish Line Pavilion.

Gaffalione is among the beneficiaries of Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher entering more horses at Kentucky Downs than ever before. Gaffalione will ride 8-5 favorite Annapolis in Saturday’s $2 million Mint Millions and 4-1 third choice Major Dude in the $1 million Gun Runner for Pletcher.

“This will be my first time on him,” Gaffalione said of Annapolis, who last year as a 3-year-old beat older horses in the $1 million, Grade 1 Coolmore Turf Mile at Keeneland and most recently was a close second in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Fourstardave. “I’m very familiar with him, competing against him in some of his previous races. He’s a very talented colt, and I’m very excited to ride him.”

With Gaffalione aboard for the first time, Major Dude finished a close fourth in Colonial Downs’ Grade 2 Secretariat after setting the pace.

“I had to use him a little bit more than I would have liked to going into the first turn,” Gaffalione said. “We were drawn outside that day and I thought we’d be able to get to the spot we wanted a little bit easier. There was a horse in the middle, and I went on and used my horse a little to get position in the 2 path. Might have done too much too early that day. Coming to the top of the stretch, I had a little more left. But when I pushed the button, he kind of emptied out on me. He’s a very talented colt. He’s shown that, competing with the top 3-year-olds this year. He’s very consistent. I think Kentucky Downs is a good spot for him. There’s plenty of room out there. We can take our time and just let him get underneath himself.”

The jockey also will ride 7-2 favorite Safeen in Sunday’s $1 million Dueling Grounds Oaks for trainer Eddie Kenneally and is well-mounted in Saturday’s $1 million Big Ass Fans Music City Stakes on the Brendan Walsh-trained Secret Money.

Those are among the 11 races with the offered purse at least $1 million. The $2 million Mint Millions, which includes $1 million for Kentucky-breds from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, shapes up as the second richest race in Kentucky behind only the Kentucky Derby. The meet’s second-richest is the $1.7 million, Grade 2 FanDuel Kentucky Turf Cup at 1 1/2 miles on Sept. 9.

“It’s incredible,” Gaffalione said. “You don’t really appreciate it until you go there. It’s the scenery, the people. It’s kind of like a backyard event but you race for this incredible amount of money and all these good horses show up every year. You get a little bit of international flair. It’s just a good time all around.”