HENDERSON, Ky. (Friday, August 11, 2017) — Who knew when a 3-year-old filly named Groupie Doll won the 2011 Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park that she would become a two-time champion? Certainly we knew who Groupie Doll was two years later, when the reigning Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner and champion female sprinter again ran in the Gardenia, making the case as the most accomplished horse ever to run at Kentucky’s second-oldest track.
And Groupie Doll got beat that day at 1-to-5, the shortest odds ever in her remarkable 23-race career. But the defeat got her back on track to winning her second championship — her accolades including having the mile Gardenia renamed in her honor in 2015.
Doubtful there is another Groupie Doll in Sunday’s $100,000, Grade 3 Groupie Doll. But we do know that no horse will be anywhere close to an odds-on favorite in a wide-open, capacity field of 12 fillies and mares.
Ellis Park odds-maker Joe Kristufek made his 7-2 program favorite Tiger Moth, who finished third in Oaklawn’s Grade 2 Azeri earlier in the year in her best graded-stakes performance and most recently won Indiana Grand’s Mari Hulman George. Iowa Distaff winner Danzatrice, whose seven victories include three stakes, is the 4-1 second choice. Walkabout is 5-1 after winning Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Matron but then was fifth in the Iowa Distaff.
“It’s a true Grade 3,” said Brad Cox, trainer of Tiger Moth and the 3-year-old Groupie Doll contender Pinch Hit and who won the stakes in 2015 with Call Pat. “It’s a very, very good race —very well-matched. It’s a very competitive field, to say the least. Mine are both doing excellent. Obviously with a large field, that’s good as far as a pace set up. That will be a positive for Tiger Moth. A filly like her, I think a mile or a mile and a sixteenth is her best thing. Just because in those size fields you’re assured a good pace to run at. So we’re hoping there’s some early pace for her to run at late.
“And Pinch Hit deserves the opportunity to step up and run against these, and she’s got a race over the track. She’s training great, and if she gets a good trip she could be very dangerous.”
The three favorites are alongside in the starting gate: No. 7 Danzatrice, No. 8 Tiger Moth and No. 9 Walkabout. Indeed, the most-fancied horses fill the outer half of the gate, with No. 10 Pinch Hit coming in off a six-length mile allowance victory at Ellis, No. 11Student Body romping by 11 in a six-furlong allowance at the track, and No. 12 Brooklynsway the most accomplished horse in the field on paper but stubbing her toe in two 2017 starts following a year’s layoff.
Danzatrice won the Iowa Distaff in her last start. The 4-year-old Walkabout won the Grade 3 Matron moved from Arlington Park to Churchill Downs this spring. She subsequently finished seventh in Churchill’s Grade 2 Fleur de Lis, a poor effort that mystifies trainer Ian Wilkes. But he says her Iowa Distaff, in which she was fifth by a total of three lengths behind Danzatrice, was quite good.
“She just couldn’t get through,” Wilkes said. “If she did, she’d have been right there. The race before, no excuse. I was dumbfounded about that. But the last race she really ran well.”
Walkabout is notable in another way, being out of the same mare, Arlucea, as Fort Larned, who won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic for the same team in Wilkes, owner Janis Whitham and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
“We’re coming into the Groupie Doll with a legitimate chance,” Hernandez said. “Fort Larned, he’s a special horse for us. It’s always special to ride for the Whitham family. It’s just fun, and hopefully we can get another graded stakes out of her. She hasn’t gotten to that Grade I level yet, but any time you can knock out these kind of races, you’ve got to be proud of horses like her who always try.”
The exception to outside horses having the inside track as far as credentials is 8-1 shot Put Da Blame On Me. She could be tough with her speed on the rail under James Graham, who rode her to a pair of snappy mile allowance victories at Churchill Downs.
“The post is great,” said Mike Bruder, the retired Evansville businessman who has a horse running in his hometown track’s biggest race for the first time in 40 years as an owner. “As long as speed continues to dominate here, it’s great for me. I’m going out of there ‘catch me if you can.’ If they catch me, they catch me. But that’s the way her race runs.”
Adore, the Steve Asmussen-trained stablemate of Danzatrice, has flashed signs of being a really good horse. The Indiana-bred She Mabee Wild, fourth in a pair of graded stakes, has kept some tough company but prevailed over a solid allowance field at Churchill Downs and is ridden by red-hot Jon Court.
Even the pair of 30-21 shots — Florida invader She Takes Heart and Hone In — earned the right to try to play spoiler with second-level allowance victories.
Edgar Estevez, who trains She Takes Heart for his brother Miguel and sister-in-law Deanna Cook, brought the 4-year-old filly to Ellis several weeks ago. The hope was to get in an allowance prep and then the Groupie Doll, but the allowance race did not get enough entries to be used. Esteves says She Takes Heart has relished the cooler temperatures compared to south Florida.
“There are some good horses in there — it’s a very competitive race — but there’s not one outstanding horse that you’d say, ‘This is the one,’” Esteves said. “But there are good horses, no doubt about it. She’s going to have to run.
“She has been training here very well, just phenomenal.”
The first Groupie Doll was run in 1982 at 1 1/8 miles, then called the Stroh’s Handicap and won by seven-time stakes-winner Sweetest Chant, who four years later would have a stakes named after her at Gulfstream Park. The Stroh’s became the Coca-Cola Handicap in 1985 and 1986 before starting its 28-year run as the Gardenia. The race received Grade 3 status in 1988 and switched from nine furlongs to a mile in 2005.
Saturday’s promotions: Come meet three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel at Making of a Racehorse, the free, family-friendly fan program that lets the public see the preparation that goes into getting a horse to the races. Starts at 7:30 a.m. Central by the starting gate, positioned in the first-turn chute, with parking adjacent in the south end of the lot by the Ohio River levee. Come talk with Calvin, get his autograph (we’ll have free Brass Hat posters) and have your picture taken with the Hall of Famer. Also: We visit with the ever-popular trainer John Hancock, the dean of the Ellis Park backside, with supervised pony rides for the kids around his barn.
“Inside Track with Joey K. and Jimmy Mac” — Join announcer Jimmy McNerney at 10:30 a.m. Central in the clubhouse’s second floor as he handicaps the afternoon’s races. Free with programs, coffee and donuts available to participants. Joe Kristufek will be back with Jimmy next week.
Wiener Dog qualifiers: Come see these cute little rascals with our last two qualifiers for the Aug. 26 Wiener Dog Derby. You can get a free Wiener Dog t-shirt by “betting” $2 on the winning dog, with all money going to charity.
Saturday, Aug. 12 only: Ladies Day — Free admission in the Gardenia Room, where women can check out cool stuff from area boutiques and get a chance to win a Michael Kors purse.
Sundays: Value Day — Every Sunday enjoy substantial savings on draft beer ($2 for 16 ounces), hotdogs and 12-ounce Coke products ($1.25) and chips and peanuts ($1).
Kids on the Track: Kids 12 and under square off in heats by age group for foot races on the racetrack, the winners getting a pair of jockey goggles and all the fame they can stand. Simply meet in the winner’s circle after the last race every Sunday during the live meet.
Aug. 20 live-money Bluegrass Tournament: Ellis Park is back with a handicapping tournament, this a live-money event presented by AmWager. Entry fee is $500 ($200 to prize money and $300 bankroll), betting minimum of $20 on each of 10 races from Ellis Park’s card and optional races to be announced. Top four finishers get trip to 2018 National Horseplayers Championship in Las Vegas, plus hotel and airfare up to $500. Top 10 finishers earn prize money. Register at www.amwager.com/bluegrasstournament.