Arklow seeks to be third repeater in Ky Turf Cup

Jennie Rees

FRANKLIN, Ky. (Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019) — Arklow on Saturday tries to become only the third horse to win the Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup twice. Happily for owner Donegal Racing, trainer Brad Cox and jockey Florent Geroux, the most lucrative race of the RUNHAPPY Meet at Kentucky Downs this year now carries a $1 million purse.

Only Rochester in 2002-’03 and Da Big Hoss (2015-’16) have won the1 1/2-mile stakes twice. The purse was $750,000 when Arklow won last year (Grace Clark photo).

“It’s an unusual track; we happen to love it,” said Donegal head Jerry Crawford. “More importantly than us, our horse happens to love it. We’re very excited to come back and defend his championship. He’s doing very, very well, so we’re excited.

“… I do want to say thank you to Kentucky Downs for running this incredible stakes program, and thank you to Calumet. We love Calumet for a couple of reasons: One, they stand Keen Ice,” Crawford continued, referencing Donegal’s 2015 Travers Stakes winner who upset Triple Crown hero American Pharoah in the Saratoga classic. “Two, they’re helping make the purse in this race $ 1million. So we are very grateful to them.”

Arklow’s 5-year-old season got off on a literal misstep when jockey Florent Geroux was unseated shortly after the start of a Keeneland allowance race. He lost his subsequent three races by a neck, neck and half-length in New York Grade 1 and 2 races.

“We wanted to go from Keeneland to the Grade 1 turf stakes at Churchill on Derby Day, but we couldn’t without the prep race,” Crawford said. “So we held off. Then we got the neck, neck, half a length trilogy, which was about a half-million dollars worth of not much real estate in terms of the purse differential. So that was very frustrating. But it certainly doesn’t take away from the fact that the horse has been performing at a very high level.

“… The one thing that is certain is that he always shows up, literally every single race. His worst finish last year was fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and I expect him to be very competitive in the Breeders’ Cup this year. The only question is: Will we do something between Kentucky Downs and the Breeders’ Cup?”

Cox has said he believes Arklow is better now than last year, though still seeking his first victory. “He showed up every time this year,” he said. “If he can run one of those races, he should be right there. He has experience over the track, so we’re excited about it. Florent has ridden him all year, and he does well down there. So I feel we have a strong hand in that race.”

Arklow will get a rematch with Kentucky Turf Cup runner-up Bigger Picture Saturday. He also gets a rematch with Bigger Picture’s Mike Maker-trained stablemate Zulu Alpha, who beat Arklow by two lengths in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Sycamore last fall in his next start after Kentucky Downs.

Of Kentucky Downs’ Crawford said: “I just think the place is magical in a weird, crazy sort of way. Obviously there’s no other track in America, with the possible exception of the downhill 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita, where the horses face such changing graded, and certainly place like they do at Kentucky Downs. I think the track is beautiful to look at. It’s not just up and down. It’s irregularly shaped. You’ve got to be some kind of horse to finish strongly on that uphill to the wire.

“I guess it’s sort of like a step back in time in England or Ireland.”

Cox also is sending out Factor This in the Kentucky Turf Cup. Factor This captured Ellis Park’s $100,000, 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Downs Preview Kentucky Turf Cup in a three-horse photo over Botswana and My Boy Jack, who both also are running in Saturday’s race. Originally Cox said it was unlikely that Factor This would run back at Kentucky Downs. Those plans changed, however.

“The mile and a half is a little bit of a question,” Cox said. “But he’s training well and there aren’t a lot of other options out there. And it was free entry fees (because of the Preview Day victory) — and it’s a million dollars. He doesn’t have to win it for it to be a profitable day.”

Cox also has Sensitive in the $500,000 Three Chimneys Ladies Turf at a mile and the ultra-consistent Cool Beans in the $500,000 Spendthrift Farm Ladies Sprint, both Grade 3 races.

Sensitive earned her first stakes victory in the Ellis Park Turf but sat out the Preview Day stakes to train up to the Three Chimneys Ladies Turf. Sensitive is 8-1, with Mitchell Road, the stakes-winning half-sister to 2019 adjudged Kentucky Derby winner Country House, the 5-2 favorite in the field of nine.

“It’s solid, a good race, obviously some fillies in there who are really accomplished in stakes company,” he said. “She’s got to really step up. But I like that she’s had some time between her last race and this one. She ran at Lone Star and came back a little quick at Ellis and she’s had plenty of time to recover. She’s been training outstandingly on the dirt here at Churchill. And she’s got some experience at Kentucky Downs two years ago (when a close second in an allowance race). So I think that’s worth something.”

Cool Beans has never been worse than third in 11 starts.

“We’re shortening her up; this is the shortest she’s ever run in her life,” Cox said of the stakes’ 6 1/2-furlong distance. “We think this might be something she can do. We’v been thinking about it for a while, and this race has a huge purse. It’s a good opportunity.”

Defending riding champ Ortiz here last four days of meet

Jose Ortiz last year won the Kentucky Downs riding title in spite of missing the opening card, prevailing on nine of his 31 mounts. He again missed opening day to ride the final weekend of Saratoga but will be at Kentucky Downs starting Thursday.

Ortiz spoke to turf journalist Mike Kane about Kentucky Downs last weekend while riding at Saratoga.

“You just have to ride your horse and try to get your horse to relax,” said the 2017 Eclipse Award riding champion. “It’s a little uphill from the mile pole to the six furlong, then from the six furlong all the way down to the quarter pole is kind of downhill — big time, like a nice hill there. The most important thing is to get your horse to relax and to not worry about any position. Like here, on a flat course, if your horse runs on the lead, you want to be right there. Over there, you just want them to relax. Sometimes, when it’s a mile, they don’t break that good going up the hill. You just have to give them time to get their legs under them.”

Ortiz recalled what he heard about Kentucky Downs before ever seeing the course. He went on to win four races that first meet in 2017.

“They were telling me about it and it sounded crazy,” he said. “I went there and it was a little crazy the first couple of rides. But I got to know the track well. I really like the course. It’s very unique. I think it’s great to ride every kind of track and learn from it. I also got the opportunity to ride some nice horses, which helps give me more confidence that sometimes I can be a little bit more patient, wait a little more. But it’s challenging, for sure.

“Hopefully we can continue this.”

Ortiz’s brother, 2018 Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz, has yet to ride at Kentucky Downs. Jose Ortiz said his brother is serving a suspension meted out at Saratoga.

“That’s the reason he’s not going, I guess, this year; he got days,” Jose said. “But we talked about it and he really wants to be there. He really wants to go. He said he’d like to ride the track. I was telling him how it is: Uphill, downhill, long stretch. He wants to go, but he can’t” this year.

Casse, with two already, goes for third stakes in Juv. Turf Sprint

Mark Casse tries to keep up his hot streak with two horses in Saturday’s $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint in Souper Dormy and Prince of Thieves, both of whom won their debuts at 5 1/2 furlongs on grass at Ellis Park.

“They both broke their maidens narrowly at Ellis Park, but the horses from Ellis have been running awfully well,” said David Carroll, who oversees Casse’s Churchill Downs division and saddled two stakes winners last Saturday in Peace Achieved (Gainesway Farm Juvenile) and Hanalei Moon (One Dreamer), along with a pair of thirds in the other stakes. “Training-wise, they’ve moved forward from the race, so we’re looking forward to it. Hopefully one of them will step up - or both.”

Casse and Cox lead the training standings with two wins apiece.

Sharp always sharp for Kentucky Downs

Joe Sharp has won at least one race at Kentucky Downs each year that he’s been training, which dates to 2014. Most years, he’s won two races and in 2017 he won three. Last year he had a single win but four seconds, two of which came by a head in stakes.

This year, his frustration has been getting horses in stakes, with Zero Gravity on the also-eligible list for both Thursday’s $250,000 Old Friends Stakes and Saturday’s $1 million Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup. She’s All Skeet needs three defections to run in the $500,000, Grade 3 Spendthrift Farm Ladies Sprint, also part of Saturday's showcase card worth $3.8 million.

But things might be falling into place, with Zero Gravity on Wednesday getting the necessary two scratches he needed to run in the Old Friends. Sharp also has Coexistence in the 6 1/2-furlong Ladies Sprint. That filly in her last start was third by a total of a neck in Ellis Park’s $100,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Sprint. The winner, May Lily, also is in Saturday’s race.

Coexistence encountered a lot of trouble in her Ellis defeat. “She probably should have won last time,” Sharp said. “Since we turned her back to sprinting, she’s been ultra-consistent. She ran down there last year, was second off a layoff. So she’s had a trip over the track, which I think helps. And she’s going into the race really well. We’re expecting her to fire another big effort. It looks like a pretty good pace in there. She’s won on the lead, but she likes a target. I think she should be able to get a good stalking trip.”

Meanwhile, Sharp would love to get She’s All Skeet into the stakes as well. She’s All Skeet is 2 for 2 at Kentucky Downs, in a maiden and second-level allowance race, and 1 for 12 everywhere else.

“She loves it there,” he said.

Pletcher seeks repeat in Dueling Grounds Derby

Todd Pletcher, whose horses made a return to Kentucky Downs last year for the first time in several years, will try to win the Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Derby for the second year in a row, this time with Social Paranoia in Sunday’s $600,000 stakes. The Elkstone Group’s colt was second by a three-quarters of a length in the $1 million, Grade 1 Belmont Derby won by Henley’s Joy, winner of the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last year. Social Paranoia most recently was a good fourth in the $1 million Saratoga Derby. That was the Street Boss colt’s only finish out of the top three in 10 lifetime starts. Jose Ortiz, last year’s Kentucky Downs riding champ, has the mount.

Pletcher won last year’s Dueling Grounds Derby with Channel Cat in a narrow victory over the Mike Maker-trained Cullum Road, who runs in Thursday’s Old Friends Stakes.

The Dueling Grounds Derby, at 1 5/16 miles, drew a field of ten 3-year-olds Wednesday, including Journeyman, disqualified from first to second in the Grade 3 Canadian Derby at Edmonton’s Century Mile, and Woodbine’s Coronation Cup winner Armistice Day. Maker, Kentucky Downs’ all-time win leader, sends out the duo of Temple and Channel Island, either of which could join the trainer’s long list of producing stakes-winners on turf with horses he claimed. Ian Wilkes thought enough of Ry’s the Guy that, off a victory in a Churchill Downs allowance in the colt’s first start on grass, he ran in the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington Park. Ry’s the Guy wasn’t the man that day but could be Sunday.

The $350,000 Fifth Third Insurance Dueling Grounds Oaks also drew a field of 10, including Arlington’s Grade 3 Pucker Up runner-up Princesa Carolina, as three-time Kentucky Downs leading trainer Kenny McPeek attempts to win the stakes he captured two years ago with Daddys Lil Darling. The field includes Lightscameraaction, second in last year’s Kentucky Downs Juvenile Fillies when trained by McPeek. The filly was sold at auction in January to Team Block. Norm Casse tries to win his first stakes at Kentucky Downs with the graded stakes-placed Belle Laura. Eoin Harty ships Hatoof winner Indigo Gin in from Chicago.

On the air: Continuing an annual tradition, Louisville’s ESPN 680/105.7 will broadcast Bob Valvano’s ESPN V Show live from Kentucky Downs Thursday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Central. The show streams live on and can be heard on the iHeart and iTunes apps…. Kentucky Downs paddock analyst Caton Bredar joins John Engelhardt on the Winning Ponies satellite radio show (at Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Central. Kentucky Downs announcer Michael Wrona will be on Horse Racing Radio Network’s Equine Forum, 7-9 a.m. Central Saturday. Wrona will be on the final segment, around 8:41 a.m. CT.

Meanwhile, with Del Mar over, California-based jockey Aaron Gryder will be joining Bredar as an analyst Thursday, Sunday and next Thursday. Bob Neumeier is Bredar’s paddock partner Saturday.