Stephanie’s Kitten heads powerful Diana field

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In the massive Ramsey Farm racing operation, some trainers pick and choose troops – assessing pedigree and conformation of young horses before putting in requests. Others wait for horses to arrive, which is just fine with Wayne Catalano.

“They send me what’s left, and I wound up with a Breeders’ Cup horse,” the trainer said with a wry laugh Thursday morning. “Let them pick ’em. Go pick out my horses? I’ll take what’s left.”

Especially when what’s left turns out to be Stephanie’s Kitten.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s homebred daughter of Ramsey Farm stallion Kitten’s Joy carries a 7-for-12 lifetime record and a bankroll of more than $1.5 million into today’s Grade 1 Diana. She won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2011 and captured the Grade 2 Lake Placid here last year. She got started a bit late this year due to a splint, but is perfect in two starts – the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs in May and the Grade 1 Just a Game at Belmont Park in June.

The success has been gratifying, though even Catalano had to be convinced at first. Stephanie’s Kitten spent her early days in the barn with the second stringers across Rice Road at Keeneland. Then she worked. A clocker told Catalano to “keep an eye on that one” and the trainer sent a man over to fetch the long bay 2-year-old filly.

“All the babies come in and you’ve got put them somewhere,” Catalano said. “I don’t worry about it too much. We had two barns and I put her in the other one. She moved up, came over to the main barn, just off a work.”

Unassuming except for a long blaze that leans to the right side of her muzzle, Stephanie’s Kitten wouldn’t attract much attention until she started moving. The long-legged, long-striding filly eats yardage when she gallops and wins with a turbo-like late move – often in the final half-furlong or later.

Early Thursday, she put in a stiff 2-mile gallop with regular rider Kelsey Danner aboard. Friday, the filly jogged lightly. Today, she seeks her third Grade 1. Around the barn, she’s first in line and knows it. Following her Thursday gallop, she took long pulls from a yellow water bucket and enjoyed a vigorous roll in the sand – capped by a buck and a squeal. Then came a bath, some walking and plenty of grass. She gets more grass and a long stroll most afternoons.

“She loves attention,” said Danner. “She likes it when people are on the rail watching in the morning. She’ll just put her head over the rail and let everyone pet her. She’s very picky about some things. On the track, she walks an eighth of a mile, a quarter-mile, then she jogs, then she walks . . . and you’re not going to change her. In the afternoon, she wants to be the first one out and she walks me around the whole place.”

Danner loves the chance to work with quality horses, and Stephanie’s Kitten has earned her spot.

“I didn’t like her when she first came to us, she spooked at everything,” Danner said. “But she was just a baby. She was athletic and did everything so easy that she never paid attention to what she was doing. She’d be galloping and spooking from something in the grandstand.”

Stephanie’s Kitten became more businesslike last year at 3, and took it another step forward this year. She saves the real efforts for turf workouts.

“Being around horses like this is pretty special, it’s why we do it,” Danner said. “She’s got talent, but she wants to win and just goes for it. She cocks her head to the side when she gets going, like a helicopter propeller or something – she’s digging in so hard and can’t keep her head straight.”

That try was evident in both Saratoga starts last season, a tough-trip fourth in the Lake George when she couldn’t find room in the final yards, and a flying half-length win in the Lake Placid. In both cases, she lacked running room late but found it in time (just) to get the win. Today’s rival Centre Court won the former, finished second in the latter.

“She was beaten at the eighth pole, then shwoosh,” Catalano said of the Lake Placid. “It was a no-brainer off the trip she got in the first race though.”

Stephanie’s Kitten is the 8-5 choice in a field of six. John Velazquez rides the Kentucky-bred for the eighth time (they’ve only lost together twice). Catalano expects some speed for his filly to run down late, though he knows it’s not an easy task.

“Tough race, this is Saratoga right?” he said. “It’s supposed to be tough. Laughing and Chad Brown’s horse they put in (Dayatthespa) will be there. It should be perfect. She doesn’t care though. She’ll run her race.”

Worth $500,000, the Diana crams nothing but quality into its 1 1/8-mile distance on the inner turf course.

G. Watts Humphrey Jr.’s Centre Court returns for a sixth matchup with Stephanie’s Kitten. Each has two wins, with Centre Court finishing second (but in front of Stephanie’s Kitten) in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II last year at Keeneland. Trainer Rusty Arnold’s filly opened 2013 with back-to-back graded wins, then finished a bottled-up fourth in the Just a Game.

“She didn’t get the horror trip, she was blocked, then she had to wait, she had to wait and then I blame the ground, she didn’t kick on the way she always has,” said Arnold. “Hopefully if I have her right, we’ll get a different result. Stephanie’s Kitten is hard to beat, she’s tough, I mean she’s tough. We’ve beat her twice, she’s beat us twice. She’s brutal.”

Julien Leparoux comes in to ride the homebred daughter of Smart Strike, who is the 5-2 second choice and breaks from post five.

Half the Diana field will head over from Brown’s barn.

Brown entered three in the Diana. Second in the race last year, Irish-bred Dream Peace breaks from the rail for Mike Smith while seeking her first American win. She followed up the Diana effort with thirds in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl and E.P. Taylor last fall, then opened 2013 with two more thirds – in the Grade 3 Beaugay and Grade 2 New York. The 5-year-old mare won a Group 2 in France in 2011.

Dayatthespa could be a pace player for Javier Castellano and carries an unbeaten mark in two Saratoga starts. The New York-bred won the Riskaverse here last year, then catapulted to Grade 1 winner in the Queen Elizabeth. The 6-1 shot finished second to today’s rival Laughing in Monmouth Park’s Eatontown last out.

Brown’s third entrant, Samitar, breaks from the outside post and tries to repeat her win in the Fairy Garden at Belmont Park July 4. Joel Rosario rides the English-bred, who finished third (beaten a neck by Centre Court) in the Lake George last summer.

New Jersey-based Alan Goldberg sends out Laughing. The Irish-bred mare won the Eatontown in her 2013 debut and is also entered in Sunday’s Matchmaker at Monmouth. Jose Lezcano is named at Saratoga, where Laughing is 12-1.