08/10/2011 3:18PM

Ellis Park: Stidham hopes La Rocca transfers good form to dirt for Gardenia

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In a poor economic and racing climate over the past few years, many trainers have seen their stables dwindle in numbers, if not in quality – as owners have eliminated or downsized their stables.

Mike Stidham is one of the few trainers to swim successfully against that tide. With divisions at Delaware Park and Arlington Park, he is loaded with horses, even fast horses – a fact on display Saturday when his training reach even extends beyond those two tracks.

Besides starting Wilcox Inn and Upperline in the Grade 1 Secretariat and Grade 1 Beverly D. on Million Day at Arlington, Stidham has La Rocca shipping south to Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. for its meet highlight, the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia Stakes.

Like Wilcox Inn and Upperline, she is a stakes winner, though unlike those two, La Rocca has not been trained by Stidham for the length of her career.

Transferred to him this spring by owner Peter Redekop, for whom Stidham trains the crack sprinter Comedero, among others – La Rocca has made a single start for him, finishing second at 22-1 odds in the Grade 3 Chicago Handicap on July 3 at Arlington.

For a mare returning from a layoff after a dull end to her 4-year-old year in 2010, it was a fine performance, one that resulted in an 89 Beyer Speed Figure, one of the best of her career.

“It was a good race, you know, a real good confidence builder,” he said. “And it was a race that was shorter than her best, going seven eighths.

The mile distance of the Gardenia should prove more to her liking; all four of her wins have come routing.

“I guess the question mark is what surface she is best on,” Stidham said, referring to the Chicago Handicap being run on Polytrack at Arlington, and the Gardenia on dirt at Ellis.

Judging by her career form, he need not worry. La Rocca, a 5-year-old daughter of Toccet, has run competitively on dirt, synthetics, and even turf over her 18-race career.

“So we’re hoping she likes the ‘Pea Patch,’” he said, referring to Ellis Park’s longtime nickname, so given for its history of growing soybeans in its infield.

The Gardenia, as well as the entire Saturday card at Ellis Park, will be drawn Thursday, and a large field is anticipated. Other fillies and mares expected by stakes coordinator Tia Murphy include Backside Blackie, Bella Medaglia, Choragus, Eye to Victory, Fortune Play, Groupie Doll, Orchestrator, Secret File, Stage Magic, Taptam, and Tidal Pool.

Besides La Rocca, Bella Medaglia, Fortune Play, Taptam, and Tidal Pool appear the leading contenders.

No other black-type stakes are scheduled Saturday at Ellis, but there is a $32,000 overnight handicap for 3-year-olds on the turf called The Bright One that supports the Gardenia.

Purse levels slightly higher at Turfway fall meet

Coming on the heels of its announcement of the Kentucky Cup being run this year, Turfway Park has released its condition book for its fall meet, which begins Sept. 8 and continues on a four-day-a-week racing schedule through Oct. 2.

Although there had been some concern that the revival of the Kentucky Cup Stakes races could cut into Turfway’s purse structure, purse levels per race are mostly higher than they were last fall.

A straight maiden race, for example, carries a $22,000 purse for Kentucky-breds – up $1,000 from a year ago. The increase is largely due to added incentive money from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, known as the KTDF.

Although not across the board, some claiming races are also being offered for slightly higher purses, too.