Trainer Kenny McPeek hasn’t plotted out the 4-year-old campaign for Daddys Little Darling, other than the season-end target being the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Churchill Downs. But he doesn’t rule out that for Nancy Polk’s homebred filly — who in her last start earned her elusive Grade 1 triumph in taking Santa Anita’s Dec. 30 American Oaks — might return to Kentucky Downs, where she set a course record of 2:10.97 for 1 5/16 miles in her dominating victory in the $200,000 Dueling Grounds Oaks.
Now a Grade 1 winner after finishing a close second in four Grade 1 races on turf and dirt, including the Kentucky Oaks, Daddys Lil Darling figures to be pointed for only graded stakes. Kentucky Downs’ $350,000 Ramsey Farm for fillies and mares at 1 5/16 miles has produced the winner and runner-up of the last two runnings of Woodbine’s Grade 1 E.P. Taylor but remains on the cusp of earning graded status. However, McPeek says the longer the better for Daddys Lil Darling, and those races can be hard to find at a lot of tracks. But not at Kentucky Downs.
In response to an inquiry whether Kentucky Downs might see Daddys Lil Darling again, McPeek said, “Certainly if there was a graded race there, it would be a no-brainer.”
But he continued, “I wouldn’t discount running her there at all. Who knows? Maybe run her against the colts if she’s doing good.”
Oooh! Bring it on! We can see it now: Daddys Lil Darling goes up against defending champ Oscar Nominated at 1 1/2 miles in the 2018 edition of the $600,000, Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup. Hey, we can dream! But McPeek has made a career out of swinging for the fences, so don’t count it out.
If ever a horse deserved to win a Grade 1 stakes, it was Daddys Lil Darling, an accomplished filly on dirt and turf.
At 2, she was second by a length in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades, then at 3 by a half-length (Keeneland’s Ashland), 1 1/4 lengths (Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Oaks) and half-length (Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup) in Grade 1 events heading into Santa Anita’s $300,000 American Oaks in California. Daddys Lil Darling had to dispatch the very tough favorite New Money Honey and out-sprint Madam Dancealot the last sixteenth-mile to win by a half-length under Hall of Famer Mike Smith. Time for 1 1/4 miles on turf was an excellent 2:00.11.
The American Oaks was the last Grade 1 race of 2017.
“It was a blast,” McPeek said of the victory. “It seemed like every time she’d run well, and it was a little disappointing she didn’t win. It was like, ‘Really?’ Towards the end of the year, that was a bit of a tough call (to race again). Most of the time, you just give them the rest of the season off, and don’t have a lot of choices. Fortunately she was still doing well. She kept seeming like she was continuing on. I made the decision to go on — and it worked out.”
"I was feeling excitement and pure panic at the end there,” Polk told Santa Anita’s publicity department after the close finish. “Madam Dancealot was closing, and I thought, ‘Oh no!' But she hung on and she did very well. We've been working for this Grade I win for a while, so it's wonderful to have it under our belt.”
The Kentucky-bred daughter of the deceased Scat Daddy became a millionaire at $1,138,405 with the $180,000 payday. She’s now 4-5-1 in 15 starts.
“I do think she’s a little better grass horse,” McPeek said when asked which surface best suits Daddys Lil Darling. “I think the distances, specifically like the Kentucky Downs distance and the added distance she got in the American Oaks, makes her more tactical. In the 1 1/16-mile races, whether turf or dirt, she just doesn’t have enough speed to run with them early and she has to work her way through traffic or go around. It makes it hard for her to do what she does well.
“I do think even a mile and a half is going to suit her.”
In that regard, McPeek acknowledged that the most frustrating race of the year — “or my life,” he amended — was the one in which she never got a shot to compete. Shipped to England for the historic Epsom Oaks, Daddys Lil Darling ran off in response to a clap of thunder on the way to the gate, sparking her jockey to bail. She wound up being scratched.
“It was a mile and a half, and I think she would have loved it,” McPeek said. “She just didn’t get a chance to pull the trigger. Mrs. Polk handled that like a complete champ, and we all left there with a bit of tail between our legs. But we regrouped and kept at it. Lot of satisfaction to it,” he said of nabbing the Grade 1.
Making the occasion even more memorable was how Polk, who races in the name of her Normandy Farm, got to the winner’s circle.
“I watched the race about seven or eight boxes from where she and her friends watched,” McPeek said. “After we hit the wire — of course, big thrill — I look over and saw Mrs. Polk and they were kind of struggling. I walked over there and am like, ‘Come on, ladies, we’ve got to go to the winner’s circle.’ ‘Well, nobody seems to know where the wheel chair went. And we’ve got to find an elevator.’ A guy walks up and says, ‘We got to go down this way, then make a left, around the corner, then down and out and around.’
“I’m like, ‘No, no, no. I’ve got an idea.’”
That would be the burly McPeek scooping up the diminutive Polk and carrying her down the steps to the winner’s circle — caught on camera by Santa Anita track photographer Benoit Photo. “I said, ‘We’re not waiting for anything. We’re going now,’” McPeek said with a laugh at the memory. “Look, I’m 6-3, 270. She’s 5-1, maybe 95 pounds. It wasn’t any problem.”
Daddys Lil Darling, out of the same mare (Miss Hot Salsa) as 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday, is getting some vacation time at Payson Park in central Florida, where McPeek maintains a winter division.
“Pulled her shoes off behind,” he said. “She’s just out in the paddock and round pen. She’s going to need to get bigger and stronger to compete against older fillies and mares. There’s really no racing of any consequence to April or May. When we get her back in training, we’ll starting worrying about where (to run) and let her tell us. But our goal is Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.”