(Photo: Master Merion won last year's Franklin-Simpson Stakes at Kentucky Downs. Reed Palmer Photography)
FRANKLIN, Ky. (Monday, Sept. 3, 2018) — Thursday’s featured $250,000 Old Friends Stakes at Kentucky Downs is for horses who haven’t won a stakes race in 2018. That doesn’t mean the horses in the overflow field of 15 don’t possess talent.
The Old Friends, conducted at a mile and 70 yards, attracted an excellent field whose entries include a Grade 1 winner (Undrafted), a Grade 1-placed horse (Next Share), Grade 2 winners (Conquest Panthera, Dimension), Grade 3 winner (Cowboy Culture) and multiple stakes-winners (Master Merion).
Thursday is Old Friends Day, which serves as a fund-raiser for the Old Friends equine retirement farms that have a satellite facility at Kentucky Downs. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be on hand to sign commemorative prints of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, available for a suggested $10 donation. Proceeds will go to Old Friends, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and The Giving Circle. Smith will sign the prints from 1-3 p.m. CT in an area near the finish line.
Wesley Ward entered both Undrafted, winner of Royal Ascot’s Group 1 Diamond Jubilee in 2015 and the Old Friends' 4-1 morning-line favorite, and Master Merion, but said via text that he’ll probably just run Master Merion and enter Undrafted back in Saturday’s $500,000, Grade 3 Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint. Master Merion, winner of last year’s Franklin-Simpson for 3-year-olds over the Kentucky Downs course, was scratched from last Saturday’s $750,000 Tourist Mile, which Ward won with Bound for Nowhere.
Both Master Merion and Undrafted are coming in off disappointing finishes at England’s Royal Ascot meet, with Ward often bringing those horses back to the races at Kentucky Downs after a 2 1/2-month freshening.
In Bound for Nowhere, Ward already has won one stakes this meet with a horse who last ran at Ascot.
Among the “horses for courses” in the field are Parlor, second in both last year’s Dueling Grounds Derby and the 2016 Kentucky Downs Juvenile, and Flatlined, who won the 2016 Old Friends and was second in last year’s Tourist Mile.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey is sending out Doctor Mounty, a good second in Monmouth Park’s Grade 3 Oceanport in his last start. McGaughey already won the Old Friends’ filly and mare counterpart with On Leave.
A strong invader comes from California in the Richard Baltas-trained Next Shares, who twice this year has lost Grade 1 races by a half-length.
Cowboy Culture, from the powerful Brad Cox barn, is shooting for his first stakes at 4 after winning three stakes last year.
Another oldie-but-goodie is the 10-year-old Dimension, who won the 2014 Kentucky Downs Turf Dash (now the Turf Sprint). Dimension is trying to get back on track after four disappointing races this year since closing out his 9-year-old season in winning the Fair Grounds’ Buddy Diliberto Memorial at 40-1 odds.
Siem Riep: ‘Real hard-knocking horse, always shows up’
The horse to catch figures to be Siem Riep, who in his last two races grudgingly gave way late to finish second to the well-regarded Mr. Misunderstood and Dot Matrix. Siem Riep was originally campaigned by China Horse Club (co-owner of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify) before being sold at Fasig-Tipton’s horses of racing age sale in July of 2017 to Marc Detampel for $80,000. Trainer Ben Colebrook said the gelding was named for a city in Cambodia.
“He’s doing well,” Colebrook said by phone. “We ran him down there last year, and he didn’t run great (when seventh in the Franklin-Simpson over yielding turf). I think that might have been more because of the soft going than not liking Kentucky Downs. I think he wants it real firm, and hopefully he’ll get that on Thursday.
“He’s a real hard-knocking horse, always shows up and runs his race. He’s been really consistent and his last two races were really good.”
Siem Riep was second by a length in Indiana Grand’s Warrior Veterans and second by 1 1/4 lengths in Ellis Park’s Kentucky Downs Preview Tourist Mile.
“I think we’ll be forwardly placed,” Colebrook said. “He seems to have a real high natural cruising speed so hopefully he can get out and be within himself and still have enough to kind of get up the hill at the end. I think with the right setup, he’s certainly got the talent to do it. He’s never run a bad race except when the turf has been on the soft side.”
Colebrook said the Old Friends was shaping up as being so deep that they considered running Siem Riep in last Saturday’s $750,000 Tourist Mile, which wound up with a field of seven and won by Bound for Nowhere..
“We knew this race would be a lot more horses,” he said. “We entered the Tourist Mile and then pulled our entry when Wesley went in with two, and we still have to run against Wesley’s other horse. But Bound for Nowhere was the one that scared me out of the Tourist Mile, to be honest. I think we picked the right race. Bound for Nowhere was just too good that day.”
Colebrook plans to run the 2-year-old filly Blame the Frog against boys in Saturday’s inaugural $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint, the world’s richest prep for the new $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint.
“I looked at the mile race,” he said of last Saturday’s $400,000 Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies. “Sprinting, we have to run against the boys this time of the year. But Wesley Ward does it all the time and they do it all the time in Europe.”
Blame the Frog ran poorly in Saratoga’s Grade 3 Schuylerville, with Colebrook saying, “She never really seemed to get a hold of the track. She kind of hit herself behind; she was scrambling the whole way. And then Luis Saez, when he realized that she wasn’t going to get any of it, he just got her home in one piece. We’re hoping to draw a line through that one. We did always think she’d be a little better on grass. The day she won was actually an off-the-turf race on the dirt. The Blame offspring have done well on turf. We’re just trying to see if the grass helps, taking a swing at a big pot.”
Colebrook also could have Life Mission in the 6 1/2-furlong Juvenile Turf Sprint. That colt had two thirds in two starts in Ireland before being sold to American ownership and sent to Colebrook. But being a maiden with not a lot of earnings, there’s a good chance Life Mission won’t make the field. In that case, he could be entered in a maiden race or run in Woodbine’s Summer Stakes.
“It’s all just come about pretty quick,” Colebrook said.
All-time win leader Hernandez rides Parlor in Old Friends
The last four Kentucky Downs riding titles have been won by the French-born Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux. But the all-time winningest rider might surprise some people.
“Corey Johnsen said I was,” said Brian Hernandez, referring to Kentucky Downs’ president when asked if he knew the answer. “I didn’t know that until last year. But the French guys are catching up.”
Hernandez had 44 career victories heading into this meet, six more than Calvin Borel and the retired Larry Melancon. Jon Court stands at 36 wins, with Geroux checking in at 33 wins through 2017, Robby Albarado at 29 and Leparoux at 25.
“It’s a pretty cool stat,” Hernandez said. “We’ve been there so many years. And for a few years, before the money got so good, Speedy Smithwick used to have all those horses he’d prep for down there and they’d win. I was fortunate to ride them for quite a few years. It’s a fun place to run.”
Hernandez missed opening day to ride at Saratoga, where he was second in the Grade 1 Spinaway on Restless Rider. He’s named to ride in nine of Thursday’s 10 races, including Parlor in the Old Friends.
Hernandez was aboard Parlor his last two starts for trainer Eddie Kenneally: a fifth in which he lost by a total of a length in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Wise Dan and a fourth in Ellis Park’s Kentucky Downs Preview Tourist Mile, with Mr. Misunderstood winning both races.
"This should be a little bit of an easier spot,” Hernandez said. “You have to go in there with some confidence. The good thing is I’ve gotten to know him a little better with each race. I think we kind of have him figured out. So if the game plan falls into our lap like I hope it does, we should be in good shape.”
Don’t ask him what the game plan is.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy race,” Hernandez said. “Look at the girls race on Saturday (the One Dreamer, with the same condition). The winner was a graded-stakes winner herself. When you get those kinds of races at Kentucky Downs, you’re going to get good horses for it. And that’s what we’re going to be facing Thursday. But we think we have a good one as well.”
Rocco back on Flatlined for Old Friends
Flatlined won the Old Friends in 2016 and then was a good second in the Tourist Mile. Trainer Scooter Dickey is hoping a return to the Old Friends serves as a reset for Flatlined, who is trying to regain the form that saw him win Gulfstream Park’s Grade 2 Ft. Lauderdale and Ellis Park’s Cliff Guilliams Memorial (now the Kentucky Downs Preview Tourist Mile). In his last start off a little freshener, Flatlined finished seventh in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Downs Preview Calumet Farm Turf Cup, but losing by less than three lengths.
“We had to give him a little time off,” Dickey said. “The last time, was back too far and he was only beaten 2 1/2 lengths. He’s doing fine.”
Joe Rocco Jr., who rode Flatlined in last year’s Guilliams and Tourist Mile, is back on the 6-year-old gelding for the first time in eight races.
“I’ve been on him plenty of times in the morning,” Rocco said. “I know the horse. He’s a cool horse, fun to ride and hopefully he returns to his old form. I rode him at Kentucky Downs last year. It was a tough race. He ran OK; he finished up a little bit. But hopefully this year he’s in top form heading over there.
"With everyone in the country looking at that place, they’re coming from everywhere," he said of Kentucky Downs and the Old Friends. "Tough race, but he belongs there. So hopefully he runs a big race.”
Rocco says Kentucky Downs reminds him of riding horses growing up in Maryland. “I like it; it’s different,” he said. “If you’re patient and you like to sit inside and save ground, it can work out good for you there. You can win some races that you shouldn’t. It’s how I grew up riding, just through fields.”
*Lanerie to miss last three days of Ky Downs serving suspension
Jockey Corey Lanerie, fresh off his fifth Ellis Park riding title and a 15-time meet champion at Churchill Downs, will miss the final three days of the five-date meet to serve a three-day suspension for careless riding. Lanerie’s mount, 20-1 shot Proud Nation, was disqualified from second to ninth for causing interference on the backstretch of Sunday’s sixth race at Ellis Park for 2-year-old maidens. The stewards handed down the suspension late Monday afternoon.
Lanerie was off to a good meet at Kentucky Downs, a session that in recent years had been slow for him. But Lanerie won a $140,000 allowance race on Convict Pike on opening day and also was a close second in the $250,000 One Dreamer aboard 9-1 shot I Remember Mama.
Lanerie said he doesn't plan to appeal the suspension, meaning he won't be able to ride this Saturday, Sunday or next Thursday at Kentucky Downs -- the next three racing days in Kentucky for which entries are not already taken. He will be back riding for Friday, Sept. 14, opening day at Churchill Downs.
"I want to be at Churchill," he said. "Even though those (Kentucky Downs) purses are good. It sucks, I know. I finally got off to a good start. But I have one more day at Kentucky Downs. Maybe I'll have a good day."