Ladies are selecting their hats, gentlemen are readying their best spring attire and the horses are working out — it’s nearly time for Northern Kentucky’s premiere horse race.
The $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, a prep to the storied Kentucky Derby, returns to Turfway Park on March 24.

“It’s always a great day, sort of a mini-Derby,” says Mike Battaglia, who will call the 41st running of the race. “There’s always a strong field, with the top trainers and jockeys coming, and we’ve got such great support from the community. People get dressed up, the women wear their hats, and celebrate it just like they enjoy the Kentucky Derby.”

The race started in 1972 when Battaglia’s father, John, hatched the idea to bring top-level horses to the park — then called Latonia Race Course — as a Derby prep. Within a decade, the race lured Jim Beam as a sponsor and started attracting top trainers. John Battaglia passed away in 1981, just missing race’s emergence on the national stage. In 1983, legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas brought his horse, Marfa, to Florence. After winning the Spiral, Marfa was an early Derby favorite, and the Spiral was finally on the map.

By the ‘90s, the race had become a staple for the horse-racing community. Spiral winners Summer Squall (‘90) and Hansel (‘91) went on to Preakness victories, before the 1992 winner, Lil E. Tee, ridden by legendary jockey Pat Day for his record fifth Spiral win, gave the race its finest moment yet. Starting in the 10th position of the Kentucky Derby, the once unwanted colt shot past the field down the stretch for one of the race’s most exciting finishes and the Spiral’s first Derby winner.

Other marquee horses would follow, including 1995’s Serena Song (a Hall of Fame filly) and 2007 Spiral winner Hard Spun, who would finish in the money in all three Triple Crown races.

“I remember sitting in meetings with my father and a few people when he had come up with this idea to bring the top horses to Kentucky early for the Spiral,” says Battaglia. “I don’t think there were many people in the room who thought it was possible. But he was a visionary. All the top trainers, all the jockeys, all the horses, they kept coming. It just grew and grew.”

While the race’s prestige grew, so too did festivities surrounding it. Now a week-long celebration, it features a prep race that bears John Battaglia’s name. A Call to the Post reception and post position draw two days prior to the race has become a popular draw, as have philanthropic events tied to local charities.

Race day is still the prime ticket and Turfway has kept the race accessible to fans. A general admission of $10 means everyone can see the race, though there are other levels with frills available. You can get a better seat from $25 rail seats along Players’ Row or the park’s second floor grandstand, or opt for tables on the third or fourth floors that range from $35 a seat, or $100 six-seat tables.

Prime packages in the park’s dining room or luxury boxes range from $55-$80 per seat and include buffet dining and televisions. The pinnacle is the VIP Tent, where $175 includes a buffet, an open bar, live entertainment and souvenirs.

Best of all is the possibility of seeing a  legend in the making.

Last year, fans could claim just that as  Animal Kingdom, trained by H. Graham Motion, flew past Decisive Moment to win  by 2-3/4 lengths. Little more than a month later, Animal Kingdom was in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs as the Stakes’ second Derby winner.

“It was a special run, and it started with the Spiral Stakes,” says Motion, who also won the Spiral with Adrian in 2008. “For me, that race comes with more meaning, with what Animal Kingdom went on to do. It has a special place with me.”

He’s not the only one. This year’s race, the second with Vinery Racing as sponsor, will air live on NBC.

“It has become one of the prestigious races leading up to the Derby,” adds Motion, who hopes to return with a horse this year. “It’s one of those races that everyone circles on his calendar.”