Friday, April 7, 2017

Handicapper's Corner: Ashland Stakes (G1)

Elated About the Ashland Stakes

By: Nicolle Neulist, Blinkers-Off

Race 9: Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:40pm EDT

Henry Clay was not just The Great Compromiser, a well-known statesman.  He also owned, bred, and raced horses.  His property was named Ashland, hence the moniker for this race.  His son John continued the tradition of breeding and running horses from their estate.  John was still alive when Day Star (1878) became Ashland Stud's first Kentucky Derby winner.  After his death, Ashland produced Riley (1890) and Alan-A-Dale (1902). 

The name Ashland lives on in Lexington here, through the Ashland Stakes.  This race has been a fertile ground for lilies, as eleven fillies have parlayed an Ashland Stakes victory into a Kentucky Oaks triumph: Come and Go (1945), Real Delight (1952), Hidden Talent (1959), Sally Ship (1963), Blue Norther (1964), Sun and Snow (1975), Optimistic Gal (1976), Blush With Pride (1982), Princess Rooney (1983), Silverbulletday (1999), and Lovely Maria (2015).  Last year's Oaks winner contested the Ashland, but did not win: Cathryn Sophia finished third behind longshot Weep No More, but won the Oaks emphatically the following month.

Eight fillies line up to contend for their share of a $500,000 purse and Kentucky Oaks points (100-40-20-10).  After airing by twelve lengths on debut at Aqueduct last fall, Elate has yet to find the winners' circle again in two starts this year.  But, the Suncoast Stakes was her first start off a two and a half month lay, and she chased a wire-to-wire winner in Tapa Tapa Tapa all the way around.  Next out, in the Honeybee (G3) at Oaklawn, she started poorly but ran on well late.  In short, Elate has some excuses, and some room for improvement third off the layoff.  She also gets a return to rider Jose Ortiz, who rode her in her first two career starts.  If she settles into her customary stalking spot, she should be well set to draft behind the likes of Someday Soon and Tapped, and fulfill the promise she showed in her scintillating debut last year.

Daddys Lil Darling hails from the hot barn of trainer Ken McPeek.  She gave the grass a try last out, but returns to the dirt here.  She has shown solid form going a mile and a sixteenth on dirt, with a win in the Pocahontas (G2) as well as two graded placings last year.  Though that Pocahontas victory came in the mud, her placings in the Alcibiades (G1) and the Golden Rod (G2) did not.  She can run on a fast track.  Though the field is small -- a worry for a closer like Daddys Lil Darling -- there is enough speed to give her a setup, and her maiden victory suggests that rider Robby Albarado can keep her a bit closer if he feels he needs to.  Back to her preferred surface and second off the lay, there's much to like about Daddys Lil Darling.

Trainer Mark Casse sends a pair in here.  Summer Luck scratched out of both the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) to run here instead.  Given her breeding, two turns should be her game.  But, the game of musical chairs has this space wary.  Pretty City Dancer, the other Casse, appeals more.  Yes, her Davona Dale (G2) was not very good -- despite a cracking pace in front of her, she didn't close.  But, that was her only start with blinkers, and she takes them back off here.  For Casse, blinkers off is an excellent move: 27% wins, 65% in the money, and a positive ROI.  On pace, she stands to get some early speed to run at here.  And, as a Tapit half to the long-winded Lear's Princess, Pretty City Dancer has a right to take well to this, her first start at two turns.

It is a bit of a concern that Casse's "A" rider, Julien Leparoux, does not ride; he shows up on west coast shipper Meanie Irenie instead.  But, new rider Joel Rosario has been riding well for Casse lately, and perhaps it was a deliberate rider switch after the clunker in the Davona Dale.  All in all, Pretty City Dancer gets one more chance to prove herself here.


#2 Elate (7/2)

#6 Daddys Lil Darling (5/2)

#3 Pretty City Dancer (7/2)

Longshot:  #7 Sailor’s Valentine (12/1) has done her best work from forward -- but does not need the lead, something that will prove useful with Someday Soon and Tapped both loading into the starting gate.  She returns to the dirt here after a solid enough try on turf -- a close second in an allowance at Tampa last month.  That came at a mile and a sixteenth, showing she can get the distance.  Though Sailor’s Valentine's breeding suggests turf may be where she ends up, she has solid enough dirt form from last year to make this worth a try.  And, she has something no other filly in the field has: a win at Keeneland.  Coming out on top against this field will not be easy, but the best from Sailor’s Valentine may get her on the podium at long odds.

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