Normandy Farm homebred Daddys Lil Darling has been knocking on the door for a Grade 1 win throughout the 2017 season, both overseas and at home, including a late-running second in the Kentucky Oaks back in May. On Saturday, the 3-year-old Scat Daddy filly carried Mike Smith to win the American Oaks at Santa Anita Park, making a game run down the stretch to hold off Madam Dancealot by a half-length at the wire. Off as the second choice at 2-1 and racing without Lasix, Daddys Lil Darling covered 1 1/4 miles over the firm turf in 2:00.11 for trainer Ken McPeek. Madam Dancealot was second, and Kathy’s Song was up late for third. The 9-5 favorite New Money Honey came up short in the lane and finished fourth.
“Kenny said not to be surprised if we were laying a whole lot closer today,” said Smith. “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.”
Daddys Lil Darling broke very well and was up front early, but settled back to just off the pace for Smith after the field crossed over the dirt to join up with the main turf course. Coach Whip came from the far outside to take command, with New Money Honey keeping her honest on the front end in second. Through fractions of :24.38, :48.68, and 1:12.83, the order remained largely unchanged except that Daddys Lil Darling was hemmed in against the rail by Desert Duchess.
Rounding the far turn, Desert Duchess began to drop back, allowing Smith to tilt Daddys Lil Darling toward the outside. Coach Whip lost stride briefly near the five-sixteenths pole, getting out a bit and forcing New Money Honey out slightly wider to make her run.
Still, New Money Honey took commanded at the head of the lane. Smith allowed Daddys Lil Darling to rev up her momentum by swinging her to the center of the stretch off the turn, and then the Hall of Fame jockey laid her down to make her run toward the wire.
“I didn’t want to have to wait for room,” Smith said. “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.”
Madam Dancealot came flying down the outside, making a big late move from the very back of the field just as Daddys Lil Darling hooked New Money Honey on the lead. As Madam Dancealot neared the flank of Daddys Lil Darling, the latter filly responded gamely with another burst of speed. Those two left New Money Honey behind in the final sixteenth of a mile.
Daddys Lil Darling pinned her ears and kept Madam Dancealot at bay through the wire, crossing it about a neck in front. Kathy’s Song came up the rail to nab third over New Money Honey, and Beau Recall finished fifth.
“I was feeling excitement and purer panic at the end there,” said owner/breeder Nancy Polk. “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 I win for a while so it’s wonderful to have it under our belt.”
Bred in Kentucky by her owner, Daddys Lil Darling is a half-sister of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday. Both are out of the Houston mare Miss Hot Salsa, a stakes-winning, graded stakes-placed racehorse. Daddys Lil Darling broke her maiden second out at Ellis Park, then won the G2 Pocahontas at Churchill on the dirt. She first tried the turf in the 2017 Florida Oaks at Tampa, running sixth, then stayed on the dirt through a strong second in the Kentucky Oaks.
Switching back to the turf, Daddys Lil Darling continued to come up just shy of the winner’s circle for one reason or another. Entered and shipped overseas, she even lost her rider before the start of the race. The American Oaks is her first Grade 1 win, and improves her overall record to 4-5-1 from 15 starts, for earnings of over $1.1 million.
“It was a bit frustrating (not getting a Grade I) because she was always competitive but didn’t have things go her way,” McPeek said. “But she’s a special filly and you just have to keep trying t with those kind. She tries hard on any kind of going, and that makes a trainer’s job pretty easy.”
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