With $1.7 million spread out over four stakes, three of them graded, Kentucky Downs will present the best racing card in its history Saturday. Racing royalty, Hall of Famers and millionaires are converging on the unique racetrack located near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Sitting on a site once infamous for its tolerance of duels, Kentucky Downs quickly has become famous for its gratification of bettors. And Saturday's sumptuous spread looks like a horseplayer's feast.
The $600,000 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, run over 1 1/2 miles of descending, bending and ascending ground, offers a unique challenge for both horses and horseplayers. It's the richest of Saturday's four stakes and perhaps the most contentious. Trainer Mike Maker has won it the last two years with Da Big Hoss. A minor setback has forced Da Big Hoss to pass on a chance at a three-peat, but Maker isn't passing. Maybe it indicates just how determined the trainer is to win this race, or perhaps it speaks to just how formidable Da Big Hoss has been over this course that Maker will send out four horses in his stead: Enterprising, the 3-1 favorite in the morning line; Oscar Nominated, the 7-2 second choice; Taghleeb, the 5-1 fourth choice; and St. Louie, a 30-1 long shot.
Enterprising most recently finished fourth in the Arlington Million, where he had the benefit of a perfect trip and a masterful ride by Corey Lanerie. Saving ground throughout, Enterprising squeezed through a narrow opening down the lane to finish within a length of the winner, Beach Patrol. Oscar Nominated, who raced off the rail throughout and angled four-wide for the stretch-run, finished two lengths behind his stablemate at Arlington International.
The Arlington Million, of course, is run at 1 1/4 miles. And Enterprising never has raced farther. Nor has Oscar Nominated proven himself at Saturday's distance. He finished second in his only effort at 1 1/2 miles, in the John Connolly at Sam Houston. In fact, in seven tries, he has won only once in races beyond 1 1/8 miles; but that came in last year's Dueling Grounds Derby, right here at Kentucky Downs, at 1 5/16 miles. The experience that might give him an edge over his stablemate.
But will it give him an edge over Postulation and Muqtaser? On Million Day at Arlington, at 1 11/16 miles, Postulation won the American St. Leger, moving easily to the lead in the final turn and then drawing clear to finish more than two lengths ahead of Taghleeb. Amazingly enough, Postulation continued to pull away in the gallop-out, looking as though he was prepared to make the journey back home to Maryland on his own if necessary. And unlike the favorites, he has won at Saturday's distance, taking the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park by six lengths.
Muqtaser was equally impressive while winning a recent Saratoga allowance race at 1 3/8 miles. The field was small and the pace slow, but Muqtaser ran the fifth quarter-mile (yes, the fifth) in 23.21 seconds to draw clear inside the sixteenth pole.
Postulation has galloped over the Kentucky Downs course, and both he and Muqtaser have European experience, which seems to pay dividends here. They both appear capable of upsetting the favorites and denying Maker a third victory in this race.
The $350,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Sprint has attracted a couple of proven performers from Saratoga, Mississippi Delta and Fair Point, as well some improving 3-year-old fillies, Lull and Morticia. They'll meet at 6 1/2 furlongs. Mississippi Delta and Fair Point, both graded stakes winners, have squared off a few times before, with each getting the better of the other. They're the favorites in the morning line, at 3-1 and 7-2, and they're both unbeaten at this distance. But since both come here after disappointing, if somewhat troubled, preformances — Mississippi Delta finished seventh after running in traffic in the Caress and Fair Point sixth after a wide trip in the Smart 'N Fancy — it's hard to say which mare is in better form. Mississippi Delta won this race a year ago, which probably guarantees she'll maintain her role as betting favorite.
But the 3-year-olds are at the very least intriguing. Morticia (6-1 in the morning line) has won three consecutive stakes for trainer Rusty Arnold and might be the quickest of the group. If the ground is firm, she could prove hard to run down. Most recently, she took the Coronation Cup at Saratoga, moving to the lead in hand and then galloping out strongly past the wire. And twice she has finished ahead of Lull (5-1).
But in the Soaring Softly Stakes at Belmont, where she finished a nose back in second, Lull raced four-wide and lugged in through the stretch; moreover, her rider's whip was somewhere on the ground when he needed it most, all of which suggests she actually might have been best that day. More recently, Lull traveled to Del Mar, where she finished second in the Grade 2 San Clemente Stakes. A stakes winner here last year, Lull appears to be improving and approaching a peak performance. And so not only are the 3-year-olds intriguing, but they might also represent good investments.
The $350,000 Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint, also at 6 1/2 furlongs, could very well produce a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Each of the last three years, Undrafted (9-2 in the morning line) has raced at Kentucky Downs before going on to the Breeders' Cup, where he has finished third, fifth and eighth. And he returns Saturday, as does Hogy (5-2), who ran second in last year's Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint and second most recently at Saratoga. Another from Saratoga is Commend (4-1), who has strung together three solid performances and appears to have sufficient speed and talent to be close to the pace and then finish strongly. At this distance over the last two years, the typical winner has stalked the pace.
Regardless of outcomes, though, or even an appearance by a country music diva from nearby Nashville, the queen of Kentucky Downs' biggest day will be Miss Temple City, the even-money favorite in the Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf, which will be run at one mile. Miss Temple City, of course, has won three Grade I stakes in her career — the Matriarch, the Shadwell Turf Mile and the Maker's Mark Mile — while earning more than $1.46 million.
Fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile, she didn't return until 6 1/2 months later, making her seasonal debut at Royal Ascot in the Queen Anne Stakes against some of the best milers in the world. Prominent early, she faded in the final quarter-mile and finished 13th. Her trainer, Graham Motion, explained that in retrospect the layoff was too much to overcome and she was too fresh for such a challenge. But then, in her return, she finished third in the Matchmaker Stakes at Monmouth Park.
And so the question accompanying the queen is whether she's as good as she was a year ago, when she defeated such horses as Tourist and Ironicus.The 5-year-old mare has been here a few days and has galloped over the Kentucky Downs course, making a favorable impression.
Still, the question lingers. And for those willing to test the proposition that Miss Temple City might not be as good, there's Linda (5-1), a winner here last year who later took the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere at Churchill, or maybe Zipessa (7-2), a Grade 3 winner who finished five lengths back in the recent Beverly D. Zipessa is a front-running threat, but with a gradual incline for the first three-sixteenths of a mile, this distance can become a daunting challenge for horses that try to parlay their natural speed into a victory. And so Linda might be the more attractive upset possibility.
But on an historic day for Kentucky Downs, with a racing queen on hand, is it appropriate to be or even think upset? Well, that probably depends on whether you're a horseplayer.
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