08/08/2012 4:21PM

Ellis Park: Gardenia Stakes boasts classy field led by Sassy Image

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Barbara D. Livingston
Sassy Image will be seeking her first victory of the year in her third start on the comeback trail.

The 31st running of the the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes on Saturday - the showcase of the Ellis Park meeting in Henderson, Ky. - shapes up as arguably the best race in the track’s 90-year history. The field of 11 fillies and mares includes four graded stakes winners: Salty Strike, Juanita, Joyful Victory, and Sassy Image.

Of those, Sassy Image is the most accomplished, having won two Grade 1 races last year at 4 before being injured in the Ballerina at Saratoga. Trainer Dale Romans said he is optimistic the mare will pick up her first victory in more than a year when making her third start on the comeback trail in the $100,000 Gardenia. After finishing a no-threat sixth in the Humana Distaff in May, she rallied to be second to Salty Strike as the odds-on favorite in a June 30 overnight stakes at Churchill.

"I’m looking for her to pick it up even more," Romans said this week from Saratoga. "She really improved in her last race. She’s been training right along there at Churchill."

Romans has won the Gardenia twice, with Angela's Love in 2004 and Swift Temper in 2008. The 2004 win came on the same day Romans won the Whitney at Saratoga with Roses In May, a day he still calls "unforgettable."

The Gardenia has seemed to teeter in prior years as to whether it deserves a graded ranking, but with the deep lineup this year on the heels of Groupie Doll – already a two-time Grade 1 winner this year – having won the 2011 running, the grade seems safe for now.

"This is a much tougher race than you'd expect for the $100,000," said Romans.

Romans has named Robby Albarado on Sassy Image, marking the first time the veteran jockey has ridden in Kentucky since early May, when he was involved in a domestic violence incident. They will start from the far outside post in the Gardenia, which is run at a mile out of the clubhouse chute on the main track. Just a few years ago, the race was one of four stakes on the day, but Ellis has scaled back its stakes schedule in recent years out of economic necessity.

* Corey Lanerie, the leading rider at the Ellis meet with 18 wins, will miss the Gardenia when riding Friday and Saturday at Saratoga. He will be back to ride the Sunday card at Ellis.

Lanerie, by far the leading rider at the Churchill Downs spring meet, is on pace to have the best season of his 22-year career. Into this week, his mount earnings stood at $4,230,863 for 2012, with his best prior year being 2003, when his mounts earned almost $6.2 million.

* Two filly-mare allowance sprints anchor down opposite ends of a solid eight-race Friday card, and both look evenly matched. The second race is a second-level allowance with a $35,000 purse, and the seventh race is a first-level allowance with a $33,000 purse. First post daily is 12:50 p.m. Central.

* Maybe So, winner of the Mountaineer Juvenile last Saturday in West Virginia, earned a 79 Beyer in that win, not a 95, as was reported earlier. The colt is back at Keeneland, with his next race as yet undecided, said trainer Al Stall Jr.