Four times a Grade 1 runner-up, Normandy Farm’s homebred Daddys Lil Darling finally earned a deserved laurel in Saturday’s $300,000 American Oaks (G1) at Santa Anita. The Ken McPeek pupil, sent off as the 2-1 second choice after the scratch of morning-line favorite Rymska, worked out an ideal trip for new rider Mike Smith.
Daddys Lil Darling broke well from post 4 and set up shop as a stalking third on the rail. Up front, Coachwhip hustled from post 9 to carve out fractions of :24.38, :48.68, and 1:12.83. The 8-5 New Money Honey, picking up the mantle of favoritism from stablemate Rymska, was in the right spot prompting the pace in second. Throwing down her challenge at the mile mark in 1:36.83, New Money Honey grabbed a slim lead in the stretch.
But the favorite didn’t put the race away. Daddys Lil Darling, who readily switched off the fence for clear sailing into the stretch, pounced on her in turn. Flying wider out, from last, was Madam Dancealot. Although drawing up to Daddys Lil Darling’s throatlatch, she could not get by. The Scat Daddy filly dug in, found extra, and repelled Madam Dancealot by a half-length.
Kathy’s Song overtook a sputtering New Money Honey for third. Beau Recall, Pantsonfire, Coachwhip, Bernina Star, and Desert Duchess rounded out the order of finish. Rymska was withdrawn after coming up lame Saturday morning, as reported by bloodstock advisor Bradley Weisbord via Twitter. Plans call for her to return to Florida for further evaluation, and hopefully resume training with Chad Brown.
While it all fell into place for Daddys Lil Darling on the course, there was a late change of plan beforehand. McPeek made an on-the-spot judgment call not to use the Lasix as initially declared. She’d won without Lasix as a juvenile, when breaking her maiden in an off-the-turf event at Ellis Park, but had employed the raceday medication in her subsequent U.S. starts.
Daddys Lil Darling clocked 1 1/4 firm-turf miles in 2:00.11, improving her record to 15-4-5-1 and joining millionaires’ row with earnings of $1,138,405. She spent her two-year-old season on the dirt, a 2016 campaign highlighted by a victory in the Pocahontas (G2), seconds in the Alcibiades (G1) and Golden Rod (G2), and a wide-trip fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1).
As a Scat Daddy half-sister to 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) hero Mongolian Saturday, Daddys Lil Darling figured to find her true home on the grass. But after a sixth in her sophomore bow in the Florida Oaks (G3) on the Tampa turf, her dirt ability made the Kentucky Oaks (G1) trail worth pursuing. She took runner-up honors in the Ashland (G1) and the Oaks at Churchill Downs, despite less than advantageous trips in both.
Next came her sporting venture to England for the original Oaks (G1), at Epsom, where she unfortunately was spooked by the violent pre-race storm, ran off, lost jockey Olivier Peslier, and had to be scratched.
Daddys Lil Darling tried again in the Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1), finishing fourth to New Money Honey, and reverted to dirt unsuccessfully when fifth in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) at Saratoga. Her futility in the series of races with “Oaks” in the title ended at long last in the September 10 Dueling Grounds Oaks, and as if for emphasis, Daddys Lil Darling romped in a Kentucky Downs course-record 2:10.97 for 1 5/16 miles. In her ensuing starts, she was a half-length second to La Coronel in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland and a late-running third in the November 24 Mrs. Revere (G2) at Churchill.
Now the second Grade 1 winner produced by the Grade 2-placed Miss Hot Salsa, Daddys Lil Darling is also a half-sister to multiple stakes scorer Victoryasecret and stakes-placed Four Song Limit. The prolific Miss Hot Salsa is a daughter of Houston and the Grade 3-winning Highland Blade mare Miss High Blade.
Quotes from Santa Anita
Nancy Polk, owner/breeder of Daddys Lil Darling: “I was feeling excitement and pure panic at the end there. Madam Dancealot was closing and I thought, ‘Oh no!’ But she hung on and she did very well. We’ve been working for this Grade 1 win for a while so it’s wonderful to have it under our belt.”
Winning trainer Ken McPeek: “We’ve been a bit of a bridesmaid all year. We’ve had 83 thirds and 53 winners, which is a little frustrating and kind of an odd number.
“We’ve had some horses run really well; she was second in the Kentucky Oaks, second in the Ashland, but it was one of those things. What are you going to do but keep trying? We wanted to keep her in straight three-year-old filly competition before the year was out. Fortunately, she stayed on form.
“It was a bit frustrating (not getting a Grade 1) because she was always competitive but didn’t have things go her way…but she’s a special filly and you just have to keep trying with those kind. She tries hard on any kind of going, and that makes a trainer’s job pretty easy.
“I felt pretty confident (when Madam Dancealot rallied into contention).I felt like we had a big chance. I wasn’t worried about the distance at all. The fact that she sat third early is a pretty big deal, because she’s had some races where she ended up back there eighth, ninth and had to circle the field.”
Hall of Famer Mike Smith on Daddys Lil Darling: “Kenny said not to be surprised if we were laying a whole lot closer today. We’re so used to seeing her run double digits out the back but she’s been training really well and really aggressively. He said, ‘It’s OK, she can just do 48’s and keep reelin’ them off.’ He said as long as she jumps well, to leave her up there, as long as she was happy – to not take anything away that was coming easily and that’s pretty much what I did.
“I didn’t want to have to wait for room. The horse right in front of me (Javier Castellano, on New Money Honey) spread the turn a little but I knew he was going to drop back in. I went outside of him anyway and he dropped back in and I was able to really get a good momentum going at that point which I needed because Corey was coming on my outside.”
Corey Nakatani on runner-up Madam Dancealot: “She ran a tremendous race. She likes to run from off the pace and we didn’t want to change her style today. I was hoping we could catch the winner, but we couldn’t quite get there. Like I say, maybe we could’ve tried to sit a little closer, but we didn’t want to change anything because she’s been finishing so well in all of her races.”