McPeek Well Represented by the Fillies at Oaklawn

It’s all about the girls the next two weekends at Oaklawn for trainer Kenny McPeek, who is scheduled to send out Tabor Hall and Oliviaofthedesert in Saturday’s $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies and Envoutante in the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares March 13.

The three horses were vanned from Florida, their winter base, arriving at 7:30 p.m. (Central) Wednesday. And McPeek said he could send another filly, a big-name filly, to Oaklawn before the meeting ends May 1 in Eclipse Award winner Swiss Skydiver.

Envoutante closed her 3-year-old campaign with dominant victories in the $100,000 Remington Park Oaks (G3) Sept. 27 at Remington Park and the $200,000 Falls City Stakes (G2) Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs. McPeek said Brian Hernandez Jr. will have the mount in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri, the final major local prep for the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 17.

“Her last race was a beast race,” McPeek said Wednesday afternoon. “She and Swiss have been getting ready down here and I’ve been trying to keep them separated. I made a decision and it looks like Swiss is going to California. It’s a high-level problem. I’m pretty heavy on fillies this year, for some odd, unusual reason.”

McPeek said he’s pointing Swiss Skydiver, the country’s champion 3-year-old filly of 2020, to the $300,000 Beholder Mile (G1) March 13 at Santa Anita, adding the race could lead to a return trip to Oaklawn. Swiss Skydiver is already a stakes winner in Hot Springs, claiming the $400,000 Fantasy (G3) last May. She later won the $500,000 Alabama Stakes (G1) at Saratoga, finished second in the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) Sept. 4 at Churchill Downs and toppled males, including future Horse of the Year Authentic, in the Preakness, the third leg of the revamped Triple Crown (COVID-19), Oct. 3 at Pimlico.

Swiss Skydiver hasn’t started since finishing seventh behind two-time Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) Nov. 7 at Keeneland.

“Possibly,” McPeek said, when asked if Swiss Skydiver could be seen at Oaklawn. “Yeah, it’s possible. I think the timing is pretty good for both of them to run back there.”

Oliviaofthedesert and Tabor Hall will be looking for Kentucky Oaks points in the 1 1/16-mile Honeybee.

Oliviaofthedesert is the more accomplished of the duo, winning an allowance Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs and the $60,000 Trapeze Stakes Dec. 18 at Remington Park in her final two starts last year. A daughter of Bernardini, Oliviaofthedesert was purchased for $320,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Tabor Hall, in her last start, was a front-running 1 ½-length maiden winner Jan. 24 at Gulfstream Park.

“They’re both two-turn fillies,” McPeek said. “I think it’s ideal timing for both of them to see where they fit in the scheme of the Oaks and the 3-year-old filly division. Olivia won a nice little race out at Remington and Tabor Hall’s shown quality. Nice Candy Ride filly. They’re both doing well and the timing was good.”

The Honeybee will offer 85 points (50-20-10-5, respectively) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Oaks, the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies. It will be run April 30 at Churchill Downs.

The Honeybee is the final major local prep for the $600,000 Fantasy (G3) April 3.

Rocco Rocks in the Rain

Mile races at Oaklawn occasionally trick riding newcomers since those races end at the sixteenth pole.

Add Barbados native Rocco Bowen to the list, but his ending was a treat. Taking no chances in last Saturday’s sixth race, Bowen guided Background ($70) to a noteworthy 1 ¾-length victory for trainer Mike Puhich in the $88,000 second-level allowance event for older horses.

“I rode four or five jumps after the wire,” Bowen said during training hours last Sunday. “(Ricardo) Santana was like: ‘Stop! Stop! Stop! Rocco, stop, you’re going to get fined.’ But I was like so in the zone. I wanted to make sure the job was done – sealed, packaged and delivered.”

The victory, over a sloppy track with light rain falling, made Bowen, 31, the first Barbadian jockey to win a race at Oaklawn. Riding at Oaklawn for the first time this year, Bowen had been winless in 33 mounts at the meet, which was interrupted last month because of severe winter weather.

“I wouldn’t say discouraged, I felt more like I was letting my agent down,” Bowen said, referring to his mentor, retired jockey Joe Steiner. “He took up a huge task to take my book when I came to Oaklawn, so I felt personally it was on me that I was letting him down and I wasn’t putting my best foot forward. I wasn’t putting my best foot forward to feed him and his family. It’s the first time away from his 5-year-old boy. It’s hard. I’ve been in that position, being away from my kids the first time. It’s never easy. I had that in the back of my mind: ‘What am I doing?’ I’m taking away from his family. I’m not doing any good.”

A wicked left hook from Mother Nature added to Bowen’s frustration. Arctic temperatures and heavy snow led Oaklawn to cancel eight live racing dates and 11 days of training in February. Not only did Bowen miss numerous chances to record his first victory, he gets on many horses each morning.

Bowen lives on Lake Hamilton and said much of his snow(cation) was spent driving to a nearby Kroger or gas station and venturing to the track to shedrow horses for trainer Norman McKnight to stay fit.

“I only missed like three days and then Mr. McKnight put me to work,” Bowen said. “It was surely one of the biggest snowstorms I’ve witnessed. I sent my mom videos, constantly, my family. I was like, ‘Family, I thought you loved me. Where’s the sunshine?’ ”

Although Bowen cut his teeth in Canada, he became a riding star in the Pacific Northwest. He became the first Bajan jockey to win a riding title in the United States at the 2015-2016 Portland Meadows meeting and was champion jockey three consecutive years (2016, 2017 and 2018) at Emerald Downs in suburban Seattle before a debilitating arm injury in September 2018 cost him approximately 1 ½ years in the saddle. Bowen resumed riding June 4 at Belterra Park and a week later became the first Bajan jockey to win a race Churchill Downs (White Wolf for trainer Paul Holthus of Hot Springs). The purse was $24,000. Bowen said it was the trainer’s wife, Oaklawn paddock analyst/handicapper Nancy Holthus, who reminded him last Saturday’s pot was almost four times larger.

“Honestly, I didn’t know the purse until I got back to the room, until one of my biggest fans, Nancy, said something to me,” Bowen said. “She said on top of me winning, it was a big purse. I said, ‘Nancy, I was just hoping to win one.’ It didn’t matter the purse size because all purses here are big. Some are bigger than others. I was just hoping to notch one. It feels great.”

Bowen entered Thursday with 1,008 career North American victories, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. He was named on two horses Thursday at Oaklawn, including Frankies Moonshine for Paul Holthus in the fifth race.

The most famous rider produced by Barbados, a small Caribbean island northeast of Venezuela, is Patrick Husbands, an eight-time Sovereign Award winner as the outstanding jockey in Canada. Husbands is 0 for 11 in his career at Churchill Downs and never ridden at Oaklawn.

Finish Lines

Champion Whitmore, in company, worked 5 furlongs in 1:00 Thursday morning at Oaklawn in advance of his scheduled 2021 debut in the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for older sprinters March 13. The track was rated fast. Co-owned and trained by Ron Moquett of Hot Springs, Whitmore has won the Hot Springs a record four consecutive years. The Hot Springs is the final major local prep for the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) April 10 at Oaklawn. Whitmore is a three-time Count Fleet winner. … Multiple stakes winner Mr. Jagermeister will have his final work for the Hot Springs Saturday morning, trainer Valorie Lund said. … Vault, beaten favorite in the $150,000 Pippin Stakes for older fillies and mares Jan. 23 at Oaklawn, is entered in Friday’s eighth race for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. Vault was unprepared at the start of the 1-mile Pippin, dwelt and was pulled up after roughly a quarter-mile by jockey Florent Geroux. “We’ve had some issues with her loading in the gate, loading, no real issues with her being in the gate or coming out of the gate,” Cox said. “That was obviously nothing anyone would ever know was going to happen until it happened. Unfortunate.”
One good thing Florent did was just kind of let her gallop around the first turn and pull her up, which I thought was a very wise move given the fact that she could not make up that type of ground against on those type of horses.” Vault, who switches to Joe Talamo, is the 5-2 program favorite for Friday’s eighth race, 1 1/16-mile allowance.