Van Berg, McPeek Ellis-raced 2-year-olds primed for Kentucky Downs

HENDERSON, Ky. (Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017) — Ellis Park’s meet ends Monday. But horses who ran at the track will be prominent at Kentucky next race meet: Kentucky Downs. And beyond.

Northern Trail, with Channing Hill up, winning a July 8 grass maiden race at Ellis Park. Coady Photography photos

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg can add onto his best season in years in Kentucky Downs’ $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Turf Showcase Juvenile, in which he’s running Jerry Caroom’s Northern Trail and Kay Stillman’s Make Noise.

The Fasig-Tipton Juvenile, along with three other stakes, is part of Kentucky Downs’ opening card that was rescheduled from Saturday to Wednesday after six inches of rain poured down on the region. As always, Ellis Park will be open for simulcasting wagering on Kentucky Downs and other tracks around the country.
Northern Trail, with Channing Hill up, nearly pulled off the upset at 81-1 in the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile before being passed by the highly regarded Dak Attack. Make Noise finished fifth after setting a stern pace and will be back in the Fasig-Tipton’s field of 12 running seven-eighths of a mile.
Van Berg — best known for training 1987 Kentucky Derby winner and ’88 Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Alysheba, as well as 1984 Preakness winner Gate Dancer — has busted past the $1 million mark in purse earnings for the first time since 2000. His 36 victories are the most since 1998. But throughout the 1960 and well into the 1980s, anything under 200 wins was a slow year, with Van Berg setting the record, since eclipsed, with 495 victories in 1976 before downsizing and pursuing quality.

Make Noise and Jon Court

Now he’s trying to earn his first stakes victory in a decade.

With a blend of talented 2-year-olds as well as very well-placed claiming horses, Van Berg has had a superb Ellis Park meet. With several more horses to run Sunday and Monday at Ellis, he’s captured 12 of 33 starts to be a strong third in the trainer standings, behind only Brad Cox’s 17 wins (out of 46 starts) and Steve Asmussen’s 16 (out of 98).
Northern Trail is the 4-1 second choice in the Juvenile behind the Steve Asmussen-trained Saratoga turf maiden winner Snapper Sinclair. Make Noise runs for the first time on grass, but his dam (Three Degrees Mon) has produced a turf winner.
Van Berg doesn’t blame bettors for sending Northern Trail off at 81-1. After all, in his prior two dirt starts, he was a well-beaten fourth in a $50,000 maiden-claiming race and then a well-beaten seventh in a maiden special weight before winning at Ellis on the grass, leading all the way. But he does say there were explanations in his prior dirt performances.
“He got tired the first time, and the second time he shin-bucked,” Van Berg said, referring to a common 2-year-old ailment of tender shins. “Plus I ran him back to quick from his first start. It was my fault. By his past performances on the dirt and winning on the grass and then coming back on the dirt, I can see why people would shy away from him. I don’t think he handles both surfaces. Now I know he does.
“And I think he would have won the race if he had sat back and waited and let the other horse (Make Noise) stay up there.”
Hill, who won the maiden race on the colt, is back aboard Northern Trail, with Jon Court back on Make Noise,
Almaraz has seen the boss at the height of his career as well as the years of struggling with bad horses and financially-unfortunate forays into breeding and training-center operations. Now loyal clients such Stillman and Caroom have stepped up to the buying young horses at the sale, where Van Berg’s eye remains sharp for a bargain.
Northern Trail was purchased for $16,000 and Make Noise $22,000 at Keeneland’s 2016 yearling sale. The winner’s purse Wednesday could be in the range of 10 times, or more what the owners paid. But those were pricey acquisitions compared with the Van Berg-trained My Peeps, who needs a scratch to run in the $350,000 Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies. Owned by Almaraz, she cost $1,500 — scarcely a bar tab for some at Keeneland’s sales.
Van Berg hasn’t had a Kentucky Derby starter since finishing third in 1994 with Blumin Affair. Could Jack be back in the 2018 Kentucky Derby?
“Well, Jack is always dreaming when he gets a baby in,” Almaraz said.

McPeek’s Ellis juveniles well-versed in going up, down, left, right

Sky Promise with Jack Gilligan 

Trainer Kenny McPeek often runs his young 2-year-olds in the mile grass races offered at Ellis Park, not so much because he thinks they are turf horses but because he believes they are distance horses.

That now works in his favor as he runs Sky Promise in the $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Turf Showcase Juvenile at Kentucky Downs. Sky Promise was third and second in a pair of dirt sprints this spring, then third on the Arlington grass before winning on turf at a mile at Ellis Park. Jack Gilligan retains the mount in the seven-furlong Juvenile.
The McPeek-trained John Tippmann looked very good winning a 6 1/2-furlong dirt maiden race in his second start at Ellis. He’s never run on grass but has been training over the turf gallops on McPeek’s Magdalena Farm and training center in Lexington with the Kentucky Downs’ undulating course in mind.
“We’ve been training him over the uphill, downhill gallops,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll have any trouble with the grass. I like the seven-eighths distance for him.”

Classy Music

McPeek also is sending out Fern Circle Stables’ Classy Music, winner of an off-the-turf mile maiden race by 4 3/4 lengths at Ellis, in the Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies.

“They were all broken as yearlings over those gallops, so that’s not really any big deal,” he said of his young horses at his farm. “They’ve all spent time out there. They went left-handed and right-handed, uphill and downhill. I don’t suspect it’s going to be any big deal. Sky Promise has a bit of experience, too, he’s been around. He’s drawn checks everywhere at whatever distance he ran. He’s a pretty quick study. He’ll figure it out either way.”
McPeek also will run Kentucky Oaks runner-up Daddy’s Lil Darling — another of his 2-year-olds last summer coming out of an off-turf mile maiden race at Ellis — in the $200,000 Dueling Grounds Oaks at 1 5/16 miles on Sept. 10. She’s had quite the adventurous year, finishing a very close second in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Ashland before again rallying from far back to be runner-up to Abel Tasman in the Kentucky Oaks in the slop.
Sent to England for the Epsom Oaks, Daddy’s Lil Darling — who following European practice did not have a pony going to the post — shied from a thunderbolt and started to run off with jockey Oliver Peslier, who came off after being unable to pull her up, resulting in her ultimate scratch. Back in the States, Daddys Lil Darling was a good fourth in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks on turf, then fifth back on dirt in Saratoga’s Coaching Club American Oaks.
“I think she’s very versatile,” McPeek said. “The Scat Daddys will run on anything. I’m not concerned about switching surfaces. She needs to get back in the winner’s circle. If she wins this, she comes back in Keeneland’s Grade I Queen Elizabeth. If she doesn’t, there’s the (Grade 2) Mrs. Revere at Churchill.”

Ten City, Sunny Skies stay on track for Breeders’ Cup prep races

McPeek had the big program favorites for the Aug. 20 Ellis Park Juvenile in Churchill Downs’ Bashford Manor winner Ten City and Ellis Park Debutante with Churchill’s Debutante winner Sunny Skies. Both finished third but McPeek has plenty of confidence in the 2-year-olds heading into Churchill Downs’ Sept. 16Iroquois (Ten City) and Pocahontas (Sunny Skies). The winners of those races earn automatic berths in and travel stipends for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.
The trainer said Ten City lost a shoe when stumbling leaving the gate.
“Legitimate excuse, though I thought Dale’s horse was impressive,” McPeek said of the Dale Romans-trained Ellis Park Juvenile winner Dak Attack. “I don’t think there was any shame in being third in either race. It was another good next step for both of them. They are obviously solid and overcame some adversity to continue to be third. Both horses in both races broke bad. Anytime that happens in a sprint race, your chances are compromised.
“But you might look back a year from now and those horses might be some serious horses who ran at Ellis. It’s still a testament to the program getting stronger down there. I think both of our horses needed the work. They were a month and a half (since racing) and we backed off both a little bit.both acted like they needed the race, drank a lot of water. It was just one step of many. So we got the race under their belt and we roll forward.”

The Truth Or Else racing in Korea

On an international note: McPeek has sent The Truth Or Else to Korea for the $610,000 Keeneland Sprint on dirt Sept. 10 at the track near Soul, South Korea. Dylan Davis will go over to ride.
The 5-year-old horse finished seventh in Ellis Park’s Don Bernhardt Memorial in his last start. For his career, he’s 6-4-7 in 32 starts, earning $603,642 for owners Harold Lerner and Magdalena Racing.
McPeek said he got a call from a representative of the Korean Racing Authority.
“Initially I was like, ‘eh, give me the details,’” he said from Saratoga. “And the details are pretty simple: They pretty much pay for everything, and the race is listed as a 105 on Time Form, which is like a listed stakes or Grade 3. And that is about his speed. He’s a good solid horse. It’s same circumference as (some) American racetracks, a mile and an eighth (including Ellis), and the track plays heavy. We like that for him. He’s a horse that closes and needs the speed to be softened a little bit. Maybe a heavier racetrack helps with that.”
Asked about his desire to try new things, McPeek said, “I’m going to try new things as long as they’re paying for me to try them. They fly the owner, trainer, jockey over and back, (pick up) accommodations. It’s a great experience, and they pay down to fifth. This is a horse that’s very difficult to place anyway, because he’s not a Grade 1 horse but he’s out of allowance conditions. Let’s see. And we’re also looking at the possibility of selling him as a stallion to the Koreans, so that’s another motivation.”

Handicapping seminar Monday

Inside Track with Joey K and Jimmy Mac, the popularly free handicapping seminar normally on Saturdays, will have a special edition Monday, with analyst Joe Kristufek and announcer Jimmy McNerney handicapping the closing-day card. As usual, the seminar starts at 10:30 a.m. Central in the clubhouse’s second-floor Gardenia Room and will be shown on live on Ellis Park’s Facebook page (EllisParkRacing).
Sunday is Kids’ Day with pony rides, petting zoos and inflatables. Monday is Fan Appreciation Day, where fans can get souvenir Groupie Doll glasses and Ellis posters.