02/29/2012 4:34PM

Gulfstream Park: Stephanie's Kitten headed to Royal Ascot for Coronation Stakes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Stephanie's Kitten is being pointed to the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Trainer Wayne Catalano and owner Ken Ramsey have confirmed that the first major goal this season for their 3-year-old filly Stephanie’s Kitten will not be the Kentucky Oaks but the Group 1 Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 22.

Stephanie’s Kitten has not started since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf four months ago. The homebred daughter of Kitten’s Joy has stepped up her training here recently, posting a pair of bullet five-furlong works over the local turf course. On Sunday, she broke three lengths behind a workmate before flying past her target in late stretch under mild encouragement to complete the distance in 59.39 seconds.

“She’s training great, really working fast on the grass.,” Catalano said. “She just doesn’t seem to like the dirt at all. Right now, the race at Ascot is our target race. We’ll probably bring her back in the Ashland at Keeneland. She runs well over artificial surfaces as well as turf. I don’t think I have time to get a prep into her before that.”

The Grade 1 Ashland will be decided at 1 1/16 miles on April 7. Stephanie’s Kitten won the Grade 1 Alcibiades at Keeneland as a final prep for the Breeders’ Cup.

“I’ve never even been out of the country before, let alone been to Ascot,” Catalano said. “We’re all really excited about taking her there.”

Ramsey also reported that he currently has seven 2-year-olds by Kitten’s Joy in training with Wesley Ward, and he plans to take at least one of them to Ascot this summer as well.

“All of them are already named, but whichever turns out to be the best will make the trip, and I plan to change its name to Ascot Kitten,” Ramsey said.

Lopez considering Kentucky move

Paco Lopez, the two-time defending Gulfstream Park riding champion, got his week off to a quick start by posting a natural hat trick winning the first three races on Wednesday’s program.

Lopez has regularly headed to Monmouth Park at the conclusion of the Gulfstream meet, but will take his tack to Keeneland when the current session ends April 8, with an eye on possibly making Kentucky his main base of operations this summer.

“We’ll try Keeneland out and see how it goes,” said Lopez’s agent, Cory Moran. “We’ve had a bunch of offers to go to Churchill Downs this summer, and with Julien [Leparoux] leaving Kentucky for New York, it might be a good opportunity. By being in Kentucky this spring, it also gives us a chance to pick up something for the Derby.”

Lopez is already penciled in to ride Force Freeze for trainer Peter Walder in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Nicks exceeding his expectations

One former Kentucky-based trainer quietly having a good winter here is Ralph Nicks, who has sent out five winners from just 18 starters thus far during the meet.

Nicks has spent the past three winters at Fair Grounds, but decided to move his base of operations to the East Coast on a permanent basis beginning in 2012, planning to run exclusively in Florida during the winter and New York in the summer.

“I talked to [NYRA racing secretary] P.J. Campo over the weekend, and we’ll be heading for Belmont at the conclusion of this meet,” Nicks said Wednesday. “I’ve currently got a dozen horses now, but should be up to about 20 by the time the 2-year-olds all come in. The decision to come east is to cut down to only two moves a year. When you’re based in Kentucky, you wind up moving around too many times and it’s tough on both the business and personal lifestyle. It’s also a good opportunity for my owners, considering the purses they’ll be offering in New York.”

Nicks has yet to run the best horse in his barn, Aubby K, this winter. Aubby K started just twice at 2, winning her career debut by 15 1/2 lengths last summer at Saratoga before finishing fourth after contesting the pace in the Grade 2 Pochanatas.

“She didn’t have any major problems, just little 2-year-old stuff that needed some time,” said Nicks who served as an assistant with Bill Mott for 13 years before going out on his own. “She should be ready to run either by the end of the meet or right after we get up to Belmont.”

Nicks said he’s pleasantly surprised by the success he’s had this winter.

“You always hope to do well when you go someplace new,” Nicks said. “But any time you can come into meets like Gulfstream or Saratoga and are able to win at the rate we have so far with the small amount of horses we’ve got, it’s always going to exceed your expectations.”