On one hand, trainer Mark Casse is happy to admit he was a little off when evaluating Debby Oxley's homebred filly Heavenly Love prior to her maiden triumph.
The bay daughter of Malibu Moon had been training up a storm over the main track at Churchill Downs this summer. So much so that Casse questioned the wisdom of trying her on the turf at Kentucky Downs in a six-furlong maiden test Sept. 7. When she rallied from well back to win by five lengths over the European-style course that day, her Canadian Hall of Fame conditioner was both suitably impressed and emboldened to revisit his initial assessment.
"I questioned (assistant trainer) David (Carroll) and was like, 'She's trained so well on dirt, do we really want to run her on the grass?'," Casse recalled. "But the purses were so big there. I thought the most impressive winner I've had at Kentucky Downs was (graded stakes winner) Airoforce and. ... I thought her win was probably more impressive than his. But she trained extremely well on the dirt prior to that."
Casse is going to get his litmus test on Heavenly Love when she tries graded company for the first time in a competitive edition of the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades Stakes (G1) on the Oct. 6 opening card of Keeneland's fall meet.
Out of the grade 1-placed mare Darling My Darling, Heavenly Love is a half sister to grade 2 winner Forever Darling, and has a pedigree to back up Casse's belief that dirt should be zero issue for the bay filly. In her debut over the main track at Gulfstream Park June 24, she finished third in a five-furlong maiden test, although her trainer says that was more a stepping stone than any real read on her ability.
"We don't put a whole lot of emphasis on our first-time starters," Casse explained. "I kind of like them to go out and run, and if they run well, fine. I like them to try and finish a bit, but we don't emphasize winning first time out, so I wouldn't read a whole lot into her first start. I would be pretty disappointed if she didn't run well (Friday)."
Heavenly Love will be joined in the 10-horse Alcibiades field of juvenile fillies by stablemate Dancing, who was most recently fourth after a troubled trip going one mile in a maiden race on the main track at Churchill Downs Sept. 15.
"I thought she should have probably won easily that day, but she just had everything go wrong for her," Casse said of Dancing, who will be making her fourth career start. "In my opinion, she ran a winning race so I'm going to act like she did win—and if she did win (going to the Alcibiades) is what I'd be doing."
Chris Block-trainee Bet She Wins is another who will try to get her impressive form to translate on dirt during the 1 1/16-miles Alcibiades. The daughter of First Samurai made her three prior starts at Arlington International Racecourse and opened eyes with a 9 1/2-length victory in the Sept. 9 Arlington-Washington Lassie Stakes going seven furlongs on the all-weather surface.
"She doesn't look that impressive in the mornings on the grass or the all-weather, and her race in the Lassie was unexpected," Block said.
Dawn and Ike Thrash's Kelly's Humor also brings successful stakes form to the table, winning the Ellis Park Debutante Stakes prior to running second in the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) last month at Churchill.
With several of her rivals expected to come from off the pace, stakes winner Pacific Gale could get away with dictating fractions in the early going. The daughter of Flat Out broke her maiden in gate-to-wire fashion at Belmont Park June 29 and rebounded from a sixth-place run in the Schuylerville Stakes (G3) to take the Sept. 2 Sorority Stakes at Monmouth Park after rating just off the pacesetter.
The complexion of the Alcibiades shifted some when trainer Mac Robertson said Tuesday that unbeaten stakes winner Amy's Challenge would not be entered after tying up at Keeneland last week. Amy's Challenge, who was also under consideration to face males in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1), was coming into Keeneland's opening weekend off a frontrunning victory in the Shakopee Juvenile Stakes at Canterbury Park Sept. 16.
"She came here and she tied up the first day she went to the track," Robertson said. "She ran really hard last time, but obviously she was doing well after that race at Canterbury. But she came here and she did tie up. Her numbers (on the blood test) were really high. I think she just got a little stressed. She'll walk a couple days and take it easy then we'll draw blood and see what it looks like."
Keeneland, Friday, October 06, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Princess Warrior (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 118 Kenneth G. McPeek 4/1 2 2Pacific Gale (KY) Christopher P. DeCarlo 118 John C. Kimmel 5/1 3 3Caroline the Great (KY) Robby Albarado 118 Tracey Glover 20/1 4 4Arabella Bella (KY) Shaun Bridgmohan 118 Mikhail Yanakov 30/1 5 5Over Thinking (KY) Jon Kenton Court 118 Victoria H. Oliver 12/1 6 6Bet She Wins (KY) Jose Valdivia, Jr. 118 Chris M. Block 7/2 7 7Kelly's Humor (KY) Javier Castellano 118 Brad H. Cox 5/1 8 8Dancing (KY) Manuel Franco 118 Mark E. Casse 12/1 9 9Heavenly Love (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 118 Mark E. Casse 4/1 10 10Sassy Sienna (KY) Luis Saez 118 Brad H. Cox 6/1
Keeneland, Friday, October 06, 2017, Race 9