HENDERSON, Ky. (Thursday, June 15, 2017) — Christy Hamilton can’t wait to find out what is in store for the 2-year-olds she’ll have in her barn this summer at Ellis Park.
Hamilton is an assistant trainer for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who last summer had horses stabled at Ellis Park for the first time in well over a decade. With Hamilton overseeing the division, Asmussen won the meet training title, his 16 victories five more than Ian Wilkes. Asmussen’s 10 seconds also were tops. And Hamilton certainly was busy with the barn’s 73 starters easily leading all trainers for the 30-date session.
The star was Lookin At Lee, the Kentucky Derby runner-up who last summer in his second start won a July 22 maiden race, followed by capturing the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile, which was reinstated after an eight-year hiatus. Lee hasn’t won since but has performed at a superior level through a campaign that saw him finish second in Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Iroquois and Keeneland’s Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and third in Oaklawn Park’s Southwest (G3) and Arkansas Derby (G1) before his big second in the Kentucky Derby.
Hamilton, who had Lookin At Lee all summer until he moved on to Asmussen’s Churchill Downs division for the fall, predicted early on that the colt would go on to big things once the race distances got longer.
“It makes you feel real good to know you can see that quality in a horse, that you see what that horse brings and has to offer,” she said. “You just smile. But darn, you really wanted to see him in that winner’s circle with the roses around his neck. That would have been the icing on the cake.”
Asmussen expects to have about 40 horses throughout the summer at Ellis, where Kentucky-bred horses will compete for a record $40,000 in purse money for maiden races.
That’s becoming a popular niche for Ellis, whose 2-year-old program last year also helped launch Kentucky Oaks runner-up Daddys Lil Darling, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Not This Time and Keeneland’s Grade 3 Stonestreet Lexington winner and Preakness third-place finisher Senior Investment. Trainers and owners increasingly are realizing that a top 2-year-old can come out of Ellis Park as easily as Saratoga’s elite summer meet in New York.
I don’t know if we’ll have anybody of the quality of Lookin At Lee — knowing how fortunate that is — but we do have highly thought of prospects that are targeting Ellis.”
Any chance Asmussen will have another Lookin At Lee emerge from Ellis?
“Heck, yes!” he said. “Ellis proved to be perfect for him. I don’t think Saratoga is conducive for closers as 2-year-olds. Last year you had the second and fourth-place finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile coming out of Ellis, which speaks for itself.
“I used Ellis last summer a lot more than I had in recent years, and I was extremely happy with the condition and the progress of the 2-year-olds. I plan on using it even more this season. I don’t know if we’ll have anybody of the quality of Lookin At Lee — knowing how fortunate that is — but we do have highly thought of prospects that are targeting Ellis.”
Hamilton wasn’t at Churchill Downs when Lookin At Lee rallied from near-last with a rail-skimming ride to finish second to Always Dreaming under 2016 Ellis Park riding champion Corey Lanerie. She was in Shreveport, La., at a restaurant with her grandmother and nephew, watching the Derby on her phone.
“My nephew literally was laid out asleep in my lap in the booth; my grandmother was across from me,” she said. “They had just brought our food, and I had my cell phone propped up against my drink, with TwinSpires.com on. I’m in the middle of a crowded restaurant, trying so hard not to make a fool out of myself by screaming.”
Did she succeed? “No, not really,” Hamilton said. “I definitely got quite a few stares. Then before the race even finished, I started getting phone calls and text messages. It was great.”
But she says she won’t look at the 2-year-olds at Ellis this summer wondering which one might be the next Lee.
“You can’t do that. That’s unfair to that horse,” she said. “Every horse is an individual, and they develop and grow at different rates. They are different personalities. Some are still little kids when they get here. He was a very, very mature baby. When I first got him in the barn, I thought he was a 3-year-old. If you didn’t know by looking at the (registration) paper, you wouldn’t know he was a 2-year-old. Because he never had any of the antics. He wasn’t skittish or looking at stuff. He was always cool, calm, collected, well-mannered gentleman. And he’s still that way.”