By Jennie Rees — Jockey Declan Cannon and trainer Brendan Walsh got off to fast starts at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs and will try to keep that momentum going into Saturday’s historic card. That includes teaming with the 4-year-old gelding Verstappen in the $1.7 million FanDuel Kentucky Turf Cup.
The 1 1/2-mile Turf Cup is one of four Grade 2 stakes, along with a pair of Grade 3 stakes, that populate Saturday’s six races worth at least $1 million to Kentucky-bred horses. Even the horses that aren’t eligible for Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund purse supplements compete for $1.3 million in the Turf Cup and $600,000 in the five other stakes.
Walsh also is running two-time Grade 1 winner Santin in the Turf Cup, which attracted an overflow field of 16 entrants, with 12 horses the maximum that can start and the other four needing defections to run.
Verstappen, owned by Andrew Farm and For The People Racing Stable, won Keeneland’s Grade 2 Elkhorn at 16-1 in April. He most recently was second in Saratoga’s Grade 2 Bowling Green, scratching out of Saratoga’s Grade 1 Sword Dancer to run at Kentucky Downs.
“The horse has been training great up in Saratoga,” Cannon said. “We got beat by a good horse of Bill Mott’s last time in Channel Maker. He lost nothing in defeat. Everything is pointing toward this race and I couldn’t be happier with him… He’s going to be very live in this race.”
Cannon and Walsh each have won three races this meet heading into Thursday’s racing, including taking an allowance race together with Tifareeh. Cannon earned his first Kentucky Downs stakes victory on opening day with the Whit Beckman-trained Harlan Estate in the $500,000 FanDuel Tapit. On Sunday he finished second in the $1 million Dueling Grounds Oaks aboard 20-1 Sabalenka for Beckman then earned the first $1 million victory of his career with the Brian Lynch-trained Anglophile in the National Thoroughbred League Dueling Grounds Derby.
Spending the winter riding at Turfway Park, where Walsh trains a lot of his grass horses over that synthetic surface, paid dividends for Cannon, who the prior year was out six months with an injury.
“This year he’s been riding super,” Walsh said. “He works very hard at it. He had a bad fall a couple of years ago that knocked him out for a while. He’s come back with a vengeance, a lot of confidence at the moment. I’ve got 100-percent confidence in Declan right now.
“He’s a big asset to me. He comes in a lot of days and rides a lot of work for me and gives me great feedback. He works hard and anybody who does that and is on a roll like he is right now, they deserve a chance.”
Godolphin’s Santin won the Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic on the 2022 Kentucky Derby card and followed that up with a victory in the Arlington Million (G1) that had relocated to Churchill for one year before moving on to Colonial Downs. Santin’s form tapered off at the end of last year, and his team experimented with running the 5-year-old horse on dirt in stakes at Churchill Downs and Ellis Park. Back on grass, he finished second in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million in Virginia. Florent Geroux picks up the mount.
“I wouldn’t completely rule out him going back to dirt again at some point,” Walsh said of Santin. “But he’s a heck of a turf horse … he ran a very good second in the Arlington Million. It was a fantastic run. He was up on the pace the whole way and was there to be shot at. And he held in there and ran a really, really good second. I feel he’s doing really well coming into here. He got a mile and a quarter at Colonial. I don’t see why he wouldn’t get a mile and a half. He’s a very relaxed horse, maybe a little too laid back if anything.”
Trainer Mike Maker entered four horses as he seeks a record sixth victory in the Turf Cup. Those include 2022 winner Red Knight, who earlier this year earned his first Grade 1 victory in Belmont Park’s Man o’ War at age 9; Grade 1 United Nations winner Therapist; and Me and Mr. C, the only horse in the body of the race who isn’t a graded-stakes winner, gaining an automatic and fees-paid spot by virtue of winning the prep at Ellis Park. His fourth entrant is Red Run, who needs four scratches in order to compete.
Therapist is the tepid 7-2 favorite over 4-1 Red Knight in the Global Tote morning line, which pegs Verstappen at 9-2 and Santin at 5-1 in an extremely competitive betting race.
First post Saturday is 11:30 a.m. Central. General admission, tailgating and parking are free. The other $1 million stakes are:
Aristocrat Ladies Marathon (G3) at 1 5/16 miles
Exacta Systems Franklin-Simpson (G2) for 3-year-olds at 6 1/2 furlongs
Castle Hill Gaming Ladies Turf (G3) at a mile
Ainsworth Turf Sprint (G2) at six furlongs
AGS Ladies Sprint (G2) at 6 1/2 furlongs
Walsh already won a stakes this meet with Secret Money taking the $1 million, Grade 3 Big Ass Fans Music City. He also is sending out New Year’s Eve, one of the favorites in the $1 million Castle Hill Gaming Ladies Turf (G3) off her victory in the Ellis Park prep stakes, and Lady Rockstar in the $1 million Aristocrat Ladies Marathon (G3). Cannon will ride Lady Rockstar, with 2022 Kentucky Downs riding champion Tyler Gaffalione aboard New Year’s Eve.
“New Year’s Eve is doing super,” Walsh said. “She ran really, really well in the prep so we feel we’ve got her back doing as good as she can do.”
The total purse money being offered Saturday is a track-record $7.63 million for 12 races. Not counting when the Breeders’ Cup is in the state, the only race day in Kentucky offering more money is the Kentucky Derby card at $8,303,000 for 14 races.
“It’s unbelievable really, the prize money,” Walsh said. “It’s getting bigger and bigger every year. For Kentucky trainers, it’s a huge mark on the calendar anymore. And you see guys coming in from New York to test the waters. And of course we had the horse (Ancient Rome) of Charlie Hills come in from England and win the $2 million race. So even they are starting to prick their ears and take notice.”
Kentucky Downs’ racing season concludes with Sunday and Wednesday cards, both with first post 12:30 p.m. CT.