Normandy Farm’s Daddys Lil Darling and jockey Mike Smith, right, hold off Madam Dancealot (Corey Nakatani), left, to win the Grade I, $300,000 American Oaks, Saturday, December 30, 2017 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia CA.
© BENOIT PHOTO
Every father can compare his little girl to something sweet and tasty. When good stuff happens then it is always sugar and spice and all things nice. Thoroughbred trainer Kenny McPeek capped his year with one of those buttermilk pie moments on December 30.
Daddys Lil Darling has been one of the prize prospects in the McPeek barn. Running well on both dirt and grass, this three-year old daughter of Scat Daddy had been tantalizingly close to greatness throughout 2017. Second place finishes on dirt in the grade 1 Ashland Stakes and Kentucky Oaks solidified the veteran conditioner’s thoughts on her quality. After successfully completing the transition to turf during the summer months, McPeek’s Darling won the Dueling Grounds Oaks over the grass at Kentucky Downs and then turned in a solid second place finish in the grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II on the grass at Keeneland.
“She’s a really talented filly that is good no matter what the surface,” says McPeek. “She is a very hard worker that likes distance and has proven she can compete anywhere.”
So here is where that slice of buttermilk pie hits the plate. Always an ambassador for the sport, McPeek chose to ship his Darling west for the grade 1 American Oaks on turf at Santa Anita. Having finished as the bridesmaid in three grade 1’s already, the winner of over 1,500 races wanted to give this girl one more shot before the end of the year. Shipping to run on California grass would be another challenge, but one worth taking on as he felt his filly was right.
“We shipped out eleven days early to help her adjust,” says McPeek. “Anytime you go from east to west this time of year there are concerns because of the weather. We wanted her to get used to the temperature and conditions of California and give her the best chance to run big.”
McPeek’s plan came together on December 30. Like a little girl nailing her dance at recital, Daddys Lil Darling rewarded her trainer with perhaps the finest effort of her 15-race career. Breaking alertly under west coast riding giant Mike Smith, the Normandy Farm’s owned filly stalked a solid pace. With talented runners all around her, there was no doubt McPeek’s Darling would have to run big to get her grade 1 in 2017. Swinging off the rail as they turned for home, Daddys Lil Darling bolted past leading New Money Honey. Out of the clouds came Madame Dancealot to challenge in deep stretch but McPeek’s Kentucky-bred was determined to win. Running strongly through the wire, Daddys Lil Darling won by an impressive half length and covered the mile and a quarter in 2:00.11.
“I am so glad to see her get her grade 1 after all the hard work and near misses,” says McPeek. “To do it at a place like Santa Anita against such a deep and talented field is just icing on the cake. This is one of the most satisfying wins of my career as a trainer.”
The American Oaks win was the fourth victory of her career and no doubt a great way to end the year. The great news for McPeek and his now million-dollar earner ($1,138,405) is 2018 could offer even more sweet opportunities.
“We are going to give her some time off but we have some ideas about 2018,” says the Lexington, Kentucky resident. “If things can go right we would like to think about Royal Ascot and Kentucky Downs as two for sure targets. The great thing is we’ve got a lot to be excited about with Daddys Lil Darling.”