Daddys Lil Darling explodes in Dueling Grounds Oaks
Jennie Rees

FRANKLIN, Ky. (Sunday, September 10, 2017) —On another record-setting day Sunday at Kentucky Downs, Daddys Lil Darling set the course record for 1 5/16 miles as the Kentucky Oaks runner-up exploded through the stretch for a 4 1/4-length victory over Summer Luck in the $200,000 Dueling Grounds Oaks.

Daddys Lil Darling, the even-money favorite under Julien Leparoux, finished matters in 2:10.97, clipping the track record of 2:11.30 set by the 5-year-old Mystical Star in 2013.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” said owner-breeder Nancy Polk of Normandy Farm, enjoying half of her two-horse stable winning for the first time since Daddys Lil Darling took last fall’s Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs. “If I had any doubts about her ability going forth, this dispelled all of them. She won with authority today, and that was very exciting to see.”

Even before that race went to post, Kentucky Downs had topped in less than four days its all-sources betting record set last year for the five-date meet of $22,540,761.22. By the time Sunday’s 10-race card had concluded, a total of $24,567,471.37 had been wagered, with Thursday’s closing-day card still to be run.

“We have had an amazing weekend of racing,” said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs’ senior vice president and general manager. “Betting $24.5 million in four days shows that the horseplayers around the country love our turf racing.”

Jockey Julien Leparoux had Daddys Lil Darling comfortable in seventh in the field of nine 3-year-old fillies, motoring to the lead to wrest it from Summer Luck with a quarter-mile to go.

“This was the first time I rode her on the grass,” said Leparoux, who was on Daddys Lil Darling for the Kentucky Oaks and then when she was a well-beaten fifth in Saratoga’s Coaching Club American Oaks in her last start. “She traveled very good, all the way on the bridle. When I got her outside, she just cruised to the leaders, did it very easy and kept on going very nicely. She did it very impressive today.

“She did it on her own, I never really asked her for anything,” he said of the course record. “She’s a nice filly. She finished fourth in the Belmont Oaks on the grass so she’s a nice filly and today she did it very impressive.”

Daddys Lil Darling is a son of the late Scat Daddy and out of the Houston mare Miss Hot Salsa, who also produced Mongolian Saturday, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland in 2015. But trainer Kenny McPeek, who missed the race while in Korea with The Truth Or Else, always has said she’d go long on turf.

Polk has only two horses, the other being the 2-year-old filly Sunny Skies, Churchill Downs’ Debutante winner. She kept both fillies because their moms died and she wanted to keep some of the bloodlines.

Daddys Lil Darling now is 3-4-0 in 12 starts, earning $839,405. But she’s as well known for a race she’d didn’t run. After the Kentucky Oaks, McPeek sent her to Epsom for what would have been a historic appearance in the English Oaks. Heading to the post without a pony (following the norm in Europe), she startled from a lightning bolt and took off, her jockey bailing off, and was scratched.

“I have to say, it was one of the more disappointing days in my life,” Polk said. “To have gone all that way and then to have her not even be able to start was really a blow.”

Michael Kleier, one of McPeek’s assistants in Lexington, said they have worked hard to calm Daddys Lil Darling down, changing up her routine. He said Kentucky Downs’ pastoral atmosphere also seemed to suit the filly.

“I’ve been really working to get this filly to relax instead of being so uptight and anxious,” he said. “We’ve just been working with her to relax and taking her with the pony. Actually the pony is out of a Houston mare too. He’s made $7 and she’s made almost a million now. Just shows you what the breed can do. We've been working on getting her to relax, get her appetite good and make her happy.”

The Jose Ortiz-ridden Summer Luck, who has placed in graded stakes but awaits her first stakes victory, finished three-quarters of a length in front of La Manta Gris. Holiday’s Angel, Quebec, Thrice, Point System, Gentle Kitten and Lantiz rounded out the field.

“Course record,” said David Casse, assistant to Summer Luck’s trainer, Mark Casse. “She ran a super race, and there’s a big one in her, hopefully sooner rather than later. She was ready to run today. Jose said he had a lot of horse, and Julien went by him easy. So all the credit goes to the winner. We’ll try again. You can’t beat them when a horse runs like that. All you can do is admire them.”

The total of $6,044,717.15 was wagered on Kentucky Downs Sunday, up 35 percent on the corresponding date last year ($4,487,790). That $6 million is the second-highest in track history, topped by Saturday’s $8,487,323.