By Tim Wilkin and Jennie Rees –Saturday’s seventh running of the Grade 2, $1 million The Exacta Systems Franklin-Simpson Stakes at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs is an equine battle of the sexes.
However, trainer Wesley Ward, whose filly Playlist is taking on eleven 3-year-old colts in the 6 1/2 furlong sprint, doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal. Ward, who has had plenty of success running fillies against the colts, didn’t spend sleepless nights agonizing over whether this was the right thing to do.
“I like to run fillies against colts in sprints,” Ward said by phone. “I don’t think it makes a big difference. If you look at the times in the 2-year-olds in training sales, the fillies are always faster as a group. I think they can compete against the colts every time.”
Ward has enjoyed Kentucky Downs success when running fillies vs. colts in the past. He won the first two runnings of the $500,000 Juvenile Turf Sprint Stakes by beating the boys with Moonlight Romance in 2018 and Cambria in 2019.
Before entering Playlist in the Franklin-Simpson, Ward had his eyes on the Grade 3, $1 million Big Ass Fans Music City, which was run last Saturday. He did not get in.
Plan B was to run against the boys, even though the horse had to be supplemented for $30,000.
“The filly is training outstanding,” Ward said. “She is a big, robust filly, she looks like a colt. As well as she is training, I just thought she really needed to run for the money. I have won a lot of races vs colts, so I thought this would be a filly that could possibly do it.”
Playlist, a daughter of Uncle Mo, is owned by the Coolmore partnership of Westerberg, Susan Magnier, Jonathan Poulin, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor. She started her career slow and has blossomed as a 3-year-old.
She has gone to the races four times this year and has won three, the last two being most impressive, if you ask Ward.
Playlist was purchased for $400,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and Ward always had high hopes for her. She broke her maiden at Turfway on Feb. 18 by a half-length but it didn’t move the meter for the trainer. He called Dermont Ryan, the manager of Coolmore America, and advised giving Playlist some time off.
The R&R perked her up and she came back and posted two sparkling wins: an allowance at Ellis Park on June 15 by 5 ½ lengths (at odds of nearly 20-1!) and another allowance a month later at Saratoga by three-quarters of a length.
Ward was in England at Royal Ascot when Playlist won at Ellis.
“I just could not believe those odds,” he said. “I realized what I thought of her, but if you looked at the paper on her (one win in four starts and a long layoff line), her odds were right. If I was a gambling man – and I don’t bet – I would have been betting with both hands. She ran like I always thought she could.”
This will be Playlist’s first start at Kentucky Downs. She has run at five different tracks – Saratoga (twice), Ellis, Turfway, Santa Anita and Del Mar — in her six starts.
“She is well-traveled,” Ward said. “Being to many places always helps. You never know, but she is fast.”
Hall of Famer John Velazquez will ride Playlist in the Franklin-Simpson and Ward is expecting to see something special.
“She duplicated the (Ellis race) at Saratoga,” Ward said. “I think she is going to run much better than she has in those races. Looking at the competition, in my mind, she will be very, very tough to beat.”
Nautilus brings Talamo, Lobo back to G2 Kentucky Turf Cup
Two years ago, jockey Joe Talamo teamed with trainer Paulo Lobo and the Argentine-bred Imperador to win the 1 1/2-mile FanDuel Kentucky Turf Cup.
The team returns Saturday with another South American horse, this time Nautilus, a Grade 1 winner in his native Brazil. The 5-year-old horse is owned by Stud Valentin and the trainer’s PH Lobo Inc.
“Not only in Kentucky, but I rode for Paulo quite a bit in California when he was back there,” Talamo said by phone Tuesday. “He’s one of those guys who definitely has horses at their peak for these big races. I know he freshened up quite a few for this meet. Take Purple Dream, that I won an allowance race on the other day. He was primed and ready.
“I know those horses I ride for him Saturday will be as well. I know when he leads them over, they’re ready to roll.”
The Grade 2 Kentucky Turf Cup got a purse hike this year, being bumped from $1 million to $1.7 million. Of that, $400,000 is restricted to registered Kentucky-bred horses. But a horse such as Nautilus still races for a base purse of $1.3 million, with about $800,000 going to the winner. In fact, it’s the richest turf race in America outside the Breeders’ Cup and last week’s $2 million Mint Millions at Kentucky Downs.
“That will buy a lot of baby clothes,” joked Talamo.
Nautilus won the 1 1/2-mile, Grade 1 Grande Premio Brasil at Brazil’s Hipodromo Gavea in June of 2022 to earn a free berth in the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland. He was never in the hunt after checking hard early, finishing 13th in his first start in four months.
But now Lobo has had time to work with Nautilus. The 5-year-old son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer has raced three times this year. Off a five-month layoff, Nautilus returned to win a mile off-the-turf allowance race at Ellis Park by a nose. It was Talamo’s first time aboard the horse.
In Brazil, Nautilus routinely ran 1 1/2 and 1 1/4 miles over heavy turf and in the mud. If Nautilus should win the Kentucky Turf Cup, he’d receive another fees-paid spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita as part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge series.
“I know he has back class on turf in Brazil,” Talamo said. “That’s obviously a tough and wide-open race, but he’s definitely in with a shot. I don’t think the distance will be a problem at all.”
Talamo also rides Quaria Comet in the $1 million AGS Ladies Sprint (G2) and Querobin Dourada in the $1 million Castle Hill Gaming Ladies Turf (G3) for Lobo and owner Brownwood Farm. Both fillies won at Kentucky Downs last year, Querobin Dourada in an allowance race and Quaria Comet in her maiden victory.
“I tell you, I love both of them,” Talamo said. “I think they both have really good shots. They both ran really good prep races at Ellis last time. Even though they lost, moving forward those were two really good preps for them. They seem to be improving at the right time.”
Querobin Dourada was second at 87-1 in Keeneland’s Giants Causeway turf sprint in April, followed by an Ellis Park allowance victory and a fourth — by a total of 1 1/4 lengths — in the $200,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf won by New Year’s Eve.
“Turning for home, I really thought I had a shot to win it,” Talamo said. “They kind of out-quickened her that last part. The one thing I really like about her for this race is she won at Kentucky Downs in really good fashion last year. The way she did that was very impressive. Once I got her out, she just lengthened her stride. I hope she can have that kind of trip and finish like she did.”
Quaria Comet has not been worse than third in five starts this year over grass and synthetic surfaces, including finishing second by a neck to Bay Storm in the $200,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Sprint.
“That was just a very unlucky beat last time,” Talamo said. “She had a beautiful trip, but the winner was fortunate enough that a horse in front kind of came off the rail and they were able to get through. The other horse just had a better trip. I think that’s why we lost. But in defeat, she ran a really good race at Ellis and I think it will set her up well for this race Saturday.”
Trainer Jonathan Thomas was not on hand when Bridlewood Farm’s Bay Storm lost last year’s $1 million Ladies Turf Sprint by a nose to the internationally accomplished Campanelle.
Being in absentia didn’t dilute the sting of coming so close with a filly who tries so hard all the time. But at least Thomas was enjoying an otherwise happy occasion.
“That was pretty painful,” he said. “Thankfully I was in my sister’s wedding with my phone in my pocket. I didn’t get to see it in real time. It was a pretty nasty beat, but at least it was by a good filly.”
Bay Storm gets another crack Saturday in the $1 million AGS Ladies Turf Sprint, run as a Grade 2 stakes for the first time. Florent Geroux has the mount. With Campanelle subsequently sold for $5 million and retired to Coolmore’s broodmare band, Bay Storm looms among the favorites in the field of nine fillies and mares set to run 6 1/2 furlongs. Wakanaka and Our Flash Drive also figure to get a lot of play.
A 5-year-old daughter of Kantharos, Bay Storm earned a fees-paid spot in the Ladies Sprint by virtue of winning the $200,000 prep race at Ellis Park by a neck over Quaria Comet, who also is in Saturday’s stakes. The Ellis victory was Bay Storm’s first since she won a Monmouth Park sprint stakes before running at Kentucky Downs last year. However, she ran very well in those six intervening races, with three seconds, a pair of thirds and a fourth by a total of a length.
“She’s been looking for the winner’s circle all year, but she’s really shown up,” Thomas said. “The idea was to have her hopefully peaking for this race, knowing how well she ran last year. Hopefully we bring her over in good order and get lucky with her.
“I really like our filly. If she can replicate what she did last year, she’ll be very tough.”
Thomas believes the 6 1/2 furlongs — one of the few longer turf sprints for the division — works in Bay Storm’s favor, even though she won the Ellis Park at 5 1/2 furlongs.
“It seems to be her ideal distance,” he said. “Five, 5 1/2 is a bit short for her. A mile we’ve tried, and it’s been a little too long. Every time she’s run 6 1/2 she’s been very competitive.”
Thomas also is running Augustin Stable’s Regal Realm in the $1 million, Grade 3 Castle Hill Gaming Ladies Turf on Saturday’s showcase card. The 4-year-old daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom won three straight races before finishing third in Saratoga’s De La Rose Stakes.
“She’s a neat filly,”” Thomas said. “She won a mile stakes at Canterbury, won a ‘two-other-than’ at Belmont, just finished third in the De La Rose at Saratoga, beaten by a good filly. I think she’ll really like the course here. If I didn’t have Bay Storm, I like her enough to have run her in the sprint stakes. I want to separate them.”
Why take two shots to win one $1 million race when you can try to win two $1 million races?
“I don’t know if I think we can win two, but you always hope you can,” he said. “Both are doing well and belong here.”
Thomas has done very well at Kentucky Downs, including winning a maiden and allowance race already this meet. Last year he had two seconds in stakes out of three starts — his first runners here since he won his Kentucky Downs debut in 2018 with Osare taking the Dueling Grounds Oaks.
Now Kentucky Downs is offering 11 stakes worth at least $1 million for Kentucky-breds, including six Saturday.
“It’s great,” Thomas said. “Listen, there’s a lot of buzz about the place. It’s a really fun place. Sometimes big days, big racing can get a little stuffy, be a little over the top. There’s just good energy here and it’s fun.
“You have some owners who are savvy. They sit on the sidelines and if you’re not in the entry box, they’re probably calling and asking you why. It’s like a fresh look at something. We’re kind of used to seeing the same old thing, just in different venues. This is a different place. It seems a little more relaxed. Outside of bills and horses not running well, the biggest complaint I hear from owners is ‘where has the fun gone?’ I think some guys have fun here.”