Sailor’s Valentine continues to thrive in Kentucky

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Eddie Kenneally checked on the next set and Sailor’s Valentine cooled out under the shade of the shedrow as Kelly Wheeler zipped her vest, adjusted the chinstrap on her helmet and pitched a question to which she likely already knew the answer.

“How’d we look?” she asked to those close enough to hear.

“Good,” came the response with another question. “How’d it feel?”

“Real good,” Wheeler said, eyes wide and about to get a leg up on her next worker of the morning.

Such is the way these days for the upset winner of the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes who might pack more than a punchers chance in next week’s Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. Sailor’s Valentine continued to show she likes being back in Kentucky – something she’s shown her connections since late March – with a strong workout in company Wednesday morning on Keeneland’s main track just after the break.

Sailor’s Valentine and Wheeler made the short walk from Kenneally’s barn to the track a little before 8:30, walked through the main gap, started and stopped a few times before jogging the wrong way up the stretch alongside a lead pony and outrider. Sailor’s Valentine and Laney, a 3-year-old filly by Shackleford who finished third in the Grade 3 Adena Springs Beaumont Stakes the first Sunday of the meet, turned at the quarter-pole, jogged a bit up the stretch before getting into a gallop in deep stretch and around the first turn.

Kenneally watched the work behind the boxes in the grandstand just before the wire, joined by his wife Catherine and their two young sons, who enthusiastically cheered for the gray filly as they watched her round the turn. Laney broke off about a half-length in front of Sailor’s Valentine at the half-mile pole, maintained that edge around the turn and into the lane before Sailor’s Valentine drew even and inched clear by about a neck on the wire. Sailor’s Valentine continued on well after the wire and clockers credited the Mizzen Mast filly with a 5-furlong move in 1:00. Laney, who is expected to run in the Grade 2 Eight Belles on the Kentucky Derby undercard, was given a half-mile in :47.20.

“She’s a very good work horse, especially in company,” Kenneally said after chatting with Wheeler coming off the track and walking back to the barn. “She can work with just about anybody. She likes this track. She kind of lost her way a little bit in Florida but turned it right around when she came back here.

“She’s happy here. She likes it but she also likes Churchill, too. She ran a pretty good race there last fall. I think she’ll handle the Churchill track just fine. The change in environment, change in weather probably helped her. Once she got out of Florida she seemed to thrive.”

A winner on debut at Keeneland last October, Sailor’s Valentine finished fourth in the Rags To Riches Stakes 22 days after her maiden score at Churchill before a second in a 6-furlong allowance in late November. She ran twice this winter in Florida – finishing fifth in the Old Hat at Gulfstream Park and second in an allowance at Tampa Bay Downs.

Sailor’s Valentine returned to Keeneland, where she trained last spring and summer as a 2-year-old, in late March. Wheeler noticed the difference almost immediately.

“She just trains like a different horse in Kentucky,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler and Kenneally really liked Sailor’s Valentine’s breeze a week before the Ashland, a half-mile in :48.80, and it played a big role in the filly showing up on the entries for the $500,000 stakes.

“They called us and were like, there’s only five horses in there,” Wheeler said. “We were thinking about running her a mile and a sixteenth on the grass. Then that last breeze I was like, ‘this filly just breezed great.’ I was sitting, standing on her and I forget what we went in and she was just loads of horse.

“She hadn’t trained like that since the last time we were at Keeneland.  So we’re like, take a shot in the Ashland. I liked how she was doing and told a couple people, ‘she could run big today.’ ”

Sailor’s Valentine indeed ran big and returned a big win mutuel, $46.40 for a $2 bet as the second longest price in the eight-horse field. Ridden by Corey Lanerie, Sailor’s Valentine defeated Daddys Lil Darling by a half-length to earn 100 points toward a spot in the starting gate for the Oaks.

“She’s fun; it’s a game to her out there,” Wheeler said. “She likes to track down horses on the track and stuff. She’s pretty strong but in a good way. She’s matured a lot. I had her all last summer and she was very tough as a baby. She was here with me, shipping in right after the meet in April. She shipped in from South Carolina and we had her here until July when we went to Saratoga and she stayed back at Churchill. Then she came back in the fall and broke her maiden in October. She just ran away with it that day and that was the only race she won until she won the Ashland.”

Sailor’s Valentine will be part of a big field expected for the $1 million Oaks, along with Fair Grounds Oaks winner Farrell, Gazelle winner Miss Sky Warrior, Fantasy winner Ever So Cleverand Santa Anita Oaks winner Paradise Woods.

Kenneally said Sailor’s Valentine would stay at Keeneland for the rest of the spring meeting that ends Friday before shipping to Churchill Saturday.

“That’s all we’re going to do with her now; we’re not going to breeze again,” he said. “She’s done really well here, likes the track, likes the cooler weather. She’s coming into the race real good, she’s an improving filly at the moment.  We’re very happy with her. She’s pretty settled and relaxed here, training great.”