HENDERSON, Ky. (Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018) — Calvin Borel teamed with trainer Ian Wilkes to capture Ellis Park’s signature race as Champagne Problems powered to a 3 1/4-length victory over front-running favorite Sense of Bravery in Sunday’s $100,000, Grade 3 Groupie Doll Stakes.
Pinch Hit, the 2-1 program favorite who wound up the second choice behind her Brad Cox-trained stablemate Sense of Bravery, finished another half-length back in third in the field of 10 fillies and mares, with Dutch Parrot scratched.
A race earlier, trainer Larry Jones — the Hopkinsville product who launched his training career at Ellis Park, returning with a division this summer after being on the East Coast for a decade — finished 1-2 in the new $75,000 Ellis Park Derby with Believe in Royalty edging Kowboy Karma by a half-length.
The 4-year-old Champagne Problems earned her first stakes victory of any kind in her 18th career start, though she was second by a neck in Churchill Downs’ Dogwood won by Pinch Hit last fall and fourth in the Fair Grounds’ Tiffany Lass won by the talented Valadorna in her only prior stakes appearances.
“The filly always had talent,” said Borel, the Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Kentucky Derby winner. “I’ve got to give credit to Ian for getting her ready for this race. We’ve been pointing her for this the last couple of races, and she’s just getting better and better… We had to spend a lot of time with her, get her head right, do a lot of work with her.”
Breaking from post 3, Champagne Problems saved ground on the rail under Borel until the quarter pole, when he was able to get her to the outside for her attack on the leaders. At the eighth-pole, Champagne Problems had only Sense of Bravery to reel in, which she did with authority while covering the mile in 1:36.74 and paying $10 to win as the third choice in the wagering.
“Actually today she wasn’t really traveling that good down the backside,” Borel said. “She’ll run on the inside of horses, but she’s not comfortable. But I was still picking up horses and I was just waiting for the time to come to get out and let her run and do her thing. I just let her run about the last eighth-mile today. She’s improving a lot.
“She was really, really nervous,” Borel said of the work they had to do with Champagne Problems. “We just took our time, teaching her how to take back and relax and turn off. Because we always thought she had talent from Day One. She’s starting to put it together right now. She did it with real authority, and they weren’t going that fast. It was just a matter of me finding a spot to go. Like I say, she’ll run inside of horses. But when I can ease out, she’s a little bit better horse.”
A sense of Bravery, breaking on the rail, set a sensible pace under jockey Fernando De La Cruz.
“She got tired a little bit,” De La Cruz said. “She just took me right to the lead, but she just got tired. She’s only a 3-year-old. She’s still learning.”
Pinch Hit, fourth in last year’s Groupie Doll as a 3-year-old, was among those pushing the pace after breaking from post 9 out of the mile chute going onto the first turn that makes the race essentially 1 1/2 turns.
“She tries. She gave it her all,” said her jockey, Shaun Bridgmohan. “I thought down the lane she would kick a little harder for me, but she was up on the pace, too. I just rode her accordingly. From the outside post, I knew I had to get a position with her, so I let her run to get some kind of position before I took a hold of her. When I saw what was going on, I kind of got a hold of her hoping she’d relax a little bit and punch home.”
Champagne Problems was coming off a Churchill Downs allowance victory over Pinch Hit in their last start. They have met four times, with the record now 2-2. Pinch Hit went on to win Indiana Grand’s $100,000 Mari Hulman George, while Wilkes opted to wait for the Groupie Doll.
“She used to be really nervous, tough to saddle, and she really has gotten into a nice niche lately,” Wilkes said by phone from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “We’ve eyed this Groupie Doll for a while because of the Grade 3 status with it. It really helps enhance her value. We’ve been planning for this about three or four races back. I told Calvin, ‘Everything we do is for the Groupie Doll.’ Sometimes a plan comes off.
“I could have run her back at Indiana Grand with Pinch Hit, but then I’d be wheeling her back. She’s not a big, robust filly. She’s a little lighter filly, but she’s developing. I just felt that in her best interest was that once she won the allowance race and she beat Pinch Hit that I’d come back and run her straight into the Groupie Doll. It was six or seven weeks, so that was fine.”
Champagne Problems was sired by 2004 Horse of the Year and popular stallion Ghostzapper and is out of a mare (Coral Sun) by 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. Champagne Problems now is 5-3-4 in 18 starts, earning $261,089 with the $58,900 payday for owners Brad Stephens’ Six Column Stables, Randy Bloch, John Seiler, Fred Merritt and David Hall. But with that pedigree, winning graded stakes is worth far more than the purse for her value as a broodmare.
“It’s pretty special to win a graded stakes race,” said Bloch, who is from Louisville. “With these kinds of trainers in here, the competition, the quality of horses, it’s just pretty special. So we’re pretty excited and elated about it. Like Calvin said, she’s getting better and better along the way. We were all watching together and we weren’t sure she was going to get there. But Calvin got her outside and she just took off. Credit to Ian for getting her ready, but she keeps improving. I don’t know where we go from here. But we love being in this position.”
The last time Borel and Wilkes teamed to win graded stakes was 2011 when Motor City took Churchill Downs’ Iroquois. But the men have a long association. Wilkes was in the process of taking over mentor Carl Nafzger’s stable when the barn had Street Sense, the 2006 2-year-old champion and 2007 Kentucky Derby winner ridden by Borel.
“What Calvin has done to start my career is priceless,” Wilkes said. “He was one of the instrumental riders, back when I was working for Carl. Calvin was a huge part of everything in developing horses. Calvin can still ride. If you get him on the right stock, he’s as good as anyone out there.”
It was an emotional winner’s circle, including Cecil Borel, the long-time trainer who basically raised his little brother, Calvin, visiting from Louisiana. Cecil Borel’s last start as a trainer was Aug. 10, 2014, at Ellis Park, after which he retired to spend all his time with his wife, Debbie, who died less than five months later after a long battle with cancer.
Cecil, carrying Calvin’s young son Chase, was in near tears afterward, saying, “And guess what? It’s Debbie’s birthday today.”
Said Calvin Borel: “This is great. The kids are here now. I’ve got a family. It’s unbelievable to win stakes like this for Ian Wilkes. I think you’re going to see a lot of better things from this filly.”
Pacific Pink, Minds and Magic, Torrent, Honey Bunny, Dorodansa, Misleading Lady and Jenda’s Agenda completed the order of finish.
Larry Jones 1-2 as Believe in Royalty takes Ellis Park Derby
Trainer Larry Jones showed you can return home — in spades — as the Western Kentucky product finished 1-2 in Sunday’s inaugural $75,000 Ellis Park Derby with Believe in Royalty edging Kowboy Karma by a half-length in a battle of stretch-runners.
Jones launched his training career at Ellis Park and stabled here for 27 years before moving his operation to the East Coast in the wake of the 2005 tornado that devastated the track, as well as the fact that he had started to develop a sequence of stakes horses. Jones did spend 2012 back at Ellis but this is his first summer here since then. One result is that the Hopkinsville native, who long has had a farm in Henderson, won his first stakes race at his hometown track since 2002 when Ruby’s Reception won the Anna M. Fischer Debutante.
Of course, Jones didn’t run a horse at Ellis from 2013 until this year, his last stakes appearance here being a second in the 2012 Groupie Doll with Joyful Victory, who the next year won a Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita.
“It’s very good for me,” said Jones of returning to his old stomping grounds. “I was just talking with the clerk of scales. The first stakes that I won here was a 3-year-old boy stake going a mile, and the clerk of scales, Darrell Foster, rode him for me. That was back in 1986. So it’s good to be back here, do this, for the inaugural running of the Ellis Park Derby, I’m proud to do it.”
Believe in Royalty, a son of the Jones-trained Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can, rallied from last in the capacity field of twelve 3-year-olds, fanning wide under Gabriel Saez but having an unimpeded trip. Kowboy Karma, making his first start since April, was bottled up in traffic and forced to check at the quarter pole before Brian Hernandez could get him to the outside, closing from 11th to edge past pacesetting Travelling Midas and jockey Jack Gilligan in the final strides.
“I got a good trip,” Saez said. “Right off the bat, I got in the position that I wanted to be. Then I settled back there to make a move when there’s room for it. When I turned for home, I saw I was about four lengths off of them and said, ‘I think the horse has a chance now. So let’s get up there.’ I asked him for his run, and he gave it to me and got the job done. That was really impressive. I liked the job Larry has done with him over the last couple of weeks. He did a really good job and we got to win the stakes, so I’m really happy with that.”
Believe in Royalty covered the mile in 1:37.96 and paid $17.40 to win as the fourth choice. He’s now 3-0-2 in nine starts, earning $110,635 for owners Robert C. Baker, William Mack, and breeder Brereton C. Jones. Brereton Jones is no relation to his trainer but has teamed with Larry Jones to win the Kentucky Oaks three times, including with Believe You Can in 2012, a summer in which that filly was part of his contingent stabled at Ellis Park.
Believe in Royalty, by super-sire Tapit, showed speed in his a lot of his earlier races but wasn’t finishing. Larry Jones switched up his training and had him come from well off the pace in the Iowa Derby, resulting in an encouraging fourth-place finish in which the lot by a total of a length.
“We knew both of these horses were going to be closers so we were just hoping they were carrying a fast pace up front,” Larry Jones said. “When I saw 23 for the first quarter, I thought, ‘Well, that’s realistic. We can close into it.’ But they both came with a run. Kowboy got in a little trouble in there, had to steady for just a second. Believe in Royalty was able to save a little ground, split horses and come running. Both horses ran very well.”
Of Believe in Royalty’s new style, he said, “I hope this is the thing to do. We took him back to dead last again today and made one run and he came running. Hopefully, that’s our game.”
Kowboy Karma, the winner of a stake in his second start and a veteran of the graded-stakes company, went off the favorite.
“We couldn’t quite get there,” Hernandez said. “I think we might have been the best horse today, though, because going around the turn we did have a little trouble. We ran up on heels and kind of ran out of the room. Finally, when it all cleared up, our horse was just gradually getting there. But not having run since Keeneland, he made a big effort.”
Travelling Midas, with Jack Gilligan up, was coming out of a maiden victory at Churchill Downs and was caught late in the Ellis Park Derby.
“It was a big race,” said Jack Bohannan, assistant trainer to Rusty Arnold. “He ran a great race. I thought we were home free there for a while. He ran well. Pretty happy with that. Big step up. We asked a lot of him, and he proved he belonged.”
Completing the order of finish: Hoonani, Battle at Sea, Ebben, Jacktastic, Front Door, Limation, Art Collection, Turner Time, Cutler.