Trainer Mike Maker gave a final tuneup to three of his four expected entrants in Saturday’s $ 600,000 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, and the parade of white-bridled horses taking flight one after another looked like O’Hare Airport. Make that Chicago’s smaller Midway Airport, since this came over Churchill Downs’ six-furlong Trackside training track.
It was a dizzying display, one horse striding out through the stretch, with another rounding the far turn and another heading into that turn, others galloping out past the wire. Bam, bam, bam.
Official half-mile times for Maker’s Turf Cup contingent: Enterprising 49 2/5 seconds, Taghleeb 48 4/5 and Oscar Nominated 50, as well as Sir Dudley Digges (49 seconds for Thursday’s Old Friends) and Kitten’s Roar 48 2/5 (for the Ramsey Farm) and more. And that was just one set of horses.
“Your head does feel like a yoyo,” Maker joked about looking one way and then the next.
Maker said the recent rain threw a wrench into his schedule and that often his horses work in company. But six days before the 1 1/2-mile Kentucky Turf Cup, which Maker won the past two years with the temporarily sidelined Da Big Hoss, he wasn’t looking for anything fast or fancy, but rather basic stuff such as how they were traveling and switching leads on cue.
His fourth Kentucky Turf Cup horse, Bigger Picture, is still in Saratoga, having finished a close second in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer on Aug. 26. The Kentucky Downs race wasn’t originally in the plans, but Maker said that changed when the horse bounced out of the Sword Dancer so well.
Maker can join Jonathan Sheppard as the only trainers to win the Kentucky Turf Cup (once known as the Kentucky Cup Turf) three times.
Oscar Nominated — who hasn’t won since taking last year’s Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Derby, often finishing good seconds or thirds to his stablemates — is also one of 14 horses entered Sunday for Thursday’s $ 150,000 Old Friends, restricted to horses that haven’t won a stakes in 2017. Maker acknowledged that entering Oscar Nominated allows them to see who enters the Kentucky Turf Cup Wednesday before deciding where to run.
The Old Friends came up a terrific race in its own right, attracting multiple stakes-winners Undrafted (a $ 1.3 million-earner and international traveler), One Mean Man, Chocolate Ride and Thatcher Street in addition to 2016 Queen’s Plate winner Sir Dudley Digges and Oscar Nominated, who also captured Turfway Park’s 2016 Spiral Stakes (G3). Also in the race at a mile and 70 yards, for which only 12 horses can run, is Grade 2 winner One Go All Go, who set the pace in Ellis Park’s Cliff Guilliams before finishing a close third.
Oscar Nominated is a full brother to the superior 3-year-old grass horse Oscar Performance, who is trained by Brian Lynch. Both horses are by Ken Ramsey’s stallion Kitten’s Joy and out of the Theatrical mare Devine Actress and were bred by Jerry Amerman. Ramsey claimed Oscar Nominated out of a $ 75,000 maiden-claiming race early in his career.
While Oscar Nominated, Taghleeb and Bigger Picture were all acquired via medium or high-priced claiming races, Enterprising was a private purchase a year ago from breeder Glen Hill Farm by Maxis Stable. Enterprising swept the Fair Grounds’ two graded turf stakes. But he was coming off a pair of sixth-place finishes when he ran in the Arlington Million, finishing fourth while losing by a total of a length to victorious Beach Patrol at 80-1 odds.
It was the first time Enterprising had been ridden by Corey Lanerie, who will be back aboard at Kentucky Downs.
“He ran really, really good at long odds,” said Lanerie, who heading into Monday’s closing card has clinched his fourth Ellis Park riding title. “He was coming. I really thought if I had a little more room a little earlier that I could have given them a good race for the win. But all and all, I did get to save all the ground. We’d have liked a little more room, but if I go around, I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. But with a different trip, different racetrack, I’m excited to get back on him.”
As a Florida-bred, Enterprising will run for $ 300,000, the other half of the Kentucky Turf Cup purse only going to Kentucky-bred horses. Still, Lanerie said, “I just want to win. The way he ran last time, I have no doubt he can get the mile and a half. He relaxed under my hands. I wish the race had been a little longer the other day. Fingers crossed and hope for a good trip, and hope he likes the track. Mike does a great job, and I’m just glad to be part of the team.”
It is Maker’s second go-round with Bigger Picture. The son of Badge of Silver was bred by his major client Ken and Sarah Ramsey, but lost the same way the Ramseys get so many horses — the claim box — when in his fourth start he ran in a $ 50,000 claiming race off a 6 1/2-month layoff at Saratoga back in 2014.
“It was kind of an owner’s title thing, hoping to win,” Maker said of the class drop. “He was coming off a layoff. It didn’t work out that way.”
Bigger Picture stumbled that day, finished third and was claimed. Fast forward 14 months later and Maker claimed Bigger Picture for $ 32,000 for Three Diamonds Farm, which has become increasingly prominent. Three Diamonds Farm has won six races with Bigger Picture, including Monmouth Park’s Grade 1 United Nations at 1 3/8 miles three races ago. He was second by a neck in Saratoga’s Grade 2 Bowling Green and then third by a total of a half-length in the Sword Dancer.
As with Da Big Hoss, who blossomed when stretching out to 1 3/8 and 1 1/2 miles and beyond, Maker felt Bigger Picture was a horse who would thrive at longer distances.
“I always felt that about him, when I had him when he was younger,” he said. “I just didn’t have that many opportunities with him.”
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