Normandy Farm’s homebred Daddys Lil Darling romped by 4 1/4 lengths as the even-money favorite in the $200,000 Dueling Grounds Oaks on Sunday at Kentucky Downs.
The track saw a total of $6,044,717 wagered on the day, up 35 percent ($4,487,790) over last year’s corresponding date and second-highest in track history, topped only by the $8,487,323 wagered on Saturday’s card.
None of that mattered to Daddys Lil Darling, who ran along the inside near the back of the field under jockey Julien Leparoux as 3-1 second choice Summer Luck set the pace through splits of :25.50, :51.05 and 1:14.63. The Scat Daddy miss angled off the inside heading up the hill and moved up to challenge rounding the second turn.
Daddys Lil Darling took command and effortlessly pulled away to finish 1 5/16 miles over the firm turf in a course-record time of 2:10.97. The previous record was 2.11.30, set by Mystical Star in 2013.
“She did it on her own, I never really asked her for anything,” Leparoux said of the course record. “She’s a nice filly. She finished fourth in the (July 8) Belmont Oaks (Invitational [G1]) on the grass so she’s a nice filly and today she did it very impressive.
“This was the first time I rode her on the grass,” added Leparoux, who piloted the filly to a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) on May 5 and last out to a fifth-place run in the July 23 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) at Saratoga. “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.”
Trained by Kenny McPeek, who was in Korea on Sunday saddling The Truth or Else to a fourth-place run in the Korea Sprint at Seoul Racecourse, Daddys Lil Darling paid $4 for the win, her first since capturing the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) one year ago as a juvenile at Churchill Downs.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” owner/breeder Nancy Polk of Normandy Farm said. “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.”
Summer Luck took second by three parts of a length over La Manta Gris, who in turn had 5 1/2 lengths to spare on fourth-placer Holiday’s Angel. Quebec just missed the superfecta by a nose and was followed under the line by Thrice, Point System, Gentle Kitten and Lantiz.
“She ran a super race, and there’s a big one in her, hopefully sooner rather than later,” said David Casse, assistant trainer to Summer Luck. “She was ready to run today. (Jockey) Jose (Ortiz) 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.
“Course record. You can’t beat them when a horse runs like that. All you can do is admire them,” he added.
Daddys Lil Darling recorded her second stakes score in this spot, adding it to the aforementioned Pocahontas on her career record, which now stands at 12-3-4-0, $839,405. In addition to the Kentucky Oaks, the bay miss also boasts placings in the Ashland Stakes (G1) from April and last year’s Alcibiades Stakes (G1) and Golden Rod Stakes (G2).
Daddys Lil Darling made her third appearance over turf here, having run sixth in the Florida Oaks (G3) on March 11 and fourth, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths, in the Belmont Oaks Invitational two back. She entered that contest off an aborted run in England in the Epsom Oaks (Eng-G1). The Kentucky-bred miss, who wasn’t accompanied in the post parade by a pony as is the norm overseas, was startled by lightning and bolted. Her jockey jumped off and she was scratched before even entering the gate.
“I have to say, it was one of the more disappointing days in my life,” Polk admitted. “To have gone all that way and then to have her not even be able to start was really a blow.”
Since then, assistant trainer Michael Kleier said they have worked to keep Daddys Lil Darling calm by changing up her routine.
“I’ve been really working to get this filly to relax instead of being so uptight and anxious,” Kleier explained. “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.”
Daddys Lil Darling is out of the Grade 2-placed stakes-winning Houston mare Miss Hot Salsa, making her a half-sister to Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) hero Mongolian Saturday. She traces back to Broodmare of the Year Bloodroot.