Front-running Dalika handles Churchill's turf best in Beverly D.

Front-running Dalika handles Churchill's turf best in Beverly D.
Photo: Wendy Wooley/Equisport Photos for Eclipse Sportswire

Louisville, Ky.

The delicate turf course at Churchill Downs looked green and healthy – until five horses ran the divots out of it Saturday afternoon.

In the first of two graded stakes moved 300 miles out of their spiritual Chicago home, Dalika (7-1) got over the chunky-style surface with the least amount of trouble. After she lost the lead she enjoyed for most of the race, she dug back in and prevailed by a half-length in the Grade 1, $500,000 Beverly D. for fillies and mares.

“The rougher the courses, the better she is,” her trainer Al Stall Jr. said. “The course didn’t matter at all to us. If it’s firm, she’s fine. If it’s knee-deep, she’s fine. She’s proven that to us on multiple occasions, so we weren’t worried about the grass. We’re actually kind of happy there was a big question mark on the surface.”

Jockeys coming off the track in the first turf race at Churchill Downs since June 10 were either abrupt or diplomatic in their assessment of it.

“No comment,” said Florent Géroux, who briefly had the lead at the top of the stretch on Princess Grace (7-2) before coming in second.

“I’d rather not say,” said Tyler Gaffalione, who rode third-place finisher Family Way (2-1).

Brian Hernandez Jr. was more open about it. For one thing, he won. For another, he had Dalika out in front for most of the 1 1/8-mile race.

“I was on the lead the whole way, so I got over the best part of it,” he said. “But on the gallop out and looking at it now, it’s got plenty of potholes in it, that’s for sure.”

The rail was set 24 feet out from the hedge in order to leave a strip of untouched turf in as good a shape as possible for the featured Arlington Million (G1) later Saturday afternoon.

For Dalika, a Grade 1 triumph was a long time coming. In three previous tries at the top level, the 6-year-old mare by the German stallion Pastorious never had hit the board. She finished fourth and ninth in the last two runnings of the First Lady at Keeneland, and then she wound up an empty fifth of six last month in the Diana at Saratoga.

“Today set up for her,” said owner Paul Varga, who grew up in Louisville and spent 11 years as the head of the liquor and wine company Brown-Forman. “The rail was out. She’s a speedy horse, and as you can see, she fights.”

That she did. She and 5-year-old Princess Grace ran one-two all the way around. Dalika established the early fractions of 23.14, 46.44 and 1:10.13. By the time the field made it to the far turn, Princess Grace grabbed the lead, and she finished the first mile at 1:33.87.

“I thought I had more than a shot,” Géroux said. “I was in front from the three-sixteenths all the way to the sixteenth pole. I definitely thought I had a chance.”

Considering Princess Grace never had raced past 1 1/16 miles, Géroux and trainer Mike Stidham felt like the distance made a difference.

“The mile-and-an-eighth looked like it maybe got her,” Stidham said. “She ran her heart out. She could not have been any gamer.”

As Princess Grace’s needle was near empty, Dalika fought back to take the lead and hold on for the win at a time of 1:46.31 on a course labeled good.

Under the new penny-breakage law in Kentucky, Dalika paid $17.02, $6.80 and $3.44. Princess Grace paid $5.10 and $2.96. Family Way delivered $2.28 to show.

Nine furlongs were not necessarily old hat for Dalika, since this was only her third start at the distance, including last month’s Diana. But her last win before Saturday came last summer in the 1 3/8-mile Robert G. Dick Memorial (G3) on a soft course at Delaware Park. She had lost five races since.

“I was happy to see her break on her toes,” Stall said. “Brian put her to sleep on the backside. Her ears were pricking back and forth. She’s actually given the bridle back to us a little bit more this year than she has in the past, which seems to be helping her. She’s not super kind, but she’s quite a bit more kind than she was last year.”

Stall and Varga said Kentucky Downs likely would be next for Dalika. But which race? She could go in the 1 5/16-mile, $550,000 Ladies Marathon (G3) or take another shot at the Ladies Turf (G3), a one-mile race in which she finished second last year. The purse for that race would be boosted from $750,000 to $1 million if a Grade 1 winner like Dalika were to start. But since she was not bred in Kentucky, she would be ineligible for any of the extra money supplemented into the purse.

“I’ve left a lot of money on the table down at Kentucky Downs with her, because she’s run two really good races down there, and she hasn’t been able to run with the (Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund) supplements,” Varga said. “For her both of them were really important races for her race record.”

Even so, the money available would still be good. Maybe even good enough to justify sending Dalika to the Breeders’ Cup. Right now, she is not nominated.

“This will probably present a heck of a decision for us,” Varga said. “We even thought about it last year. She had won a distance race in the summer. We didn’t think she was quite up to it, and it’s an expensive nomination if you don’t do it when they’re young.”

For now, connections will worry only about next month at the notch on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

“It’s great money,” Varga said, “and she really likes that course.”

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