07/21/2017 2:56PM

Hovdey: Daddys Lil Darling a two-letter filly

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Barbara D. Livingston
Daddys Lil Darling (left) finishes second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks.

On Sunday, separated by a continent, 16 fillies from the foal crop of 2014 will conform to the demands of either the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga or the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap at Del Mar. The Eastern race calls for nine furlongs on dirt, while out West they will race 8 1/2 furlongs on grass.

Believe it or not, even in this age of specialization, there are horses who could handle either challenge. Among those running Sunday, Daddys Lil Darling fits the bill. The daughter of Scat Daddy racked up admirable seconds in the Ashland and the Kentucky Oaks this year, then finished a respectable fourth on turf in the Belmont Oaks in her last start. She is back on dirt in the Coaching Club against Abel Tasman, who beat Daddys Lil Darling only 1 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs.

“I believe a good horse will run on just about anything,” said Kenny McPeek, who trains Daddys Lil Darling for Nancy Polk’s Normandy Farm. “Of course, there are horses that will favor one surface over another. But I’m not convinced it’s that much of a difference. I tend to worry more about timing and the class of the field rather than what they’re running over.”

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Thoroughbreds are more entertaining if they can do more than one thing. This is not asking a lot, and certainly no one expects an everyday racehorse to rise to the level of multithreat champions like Dr. Fager, Secretariat, or Forego, who could dance to any tune. Secretariat added a grass trophy to his Triple Crown and Horse of the Year awards. Forego was once the champion sprinter on his way to Horse of the Year. And Dr. Fager, the Rafer Johnson of the breed, won three different titles along with Horse of the Year.

When it comes to 3-year-old fillies, economics tend to drive diversity. In California especially, main-track opportunities dry up once Santa Anita’s long season ends, leaving only the San Clemente and the Del Mar Oaks on the grass for the best of the division. Young lasses, content with their life on dirt, awaken one morning to the revelation that they have become a turf horse. Presto!

A cruise through the history of the San Clemente reveals a number of successful converts. Hollywood Wildcat won the 1993 San Clemente and the Del Mar Oaks for Neil Drysdale and later that year added a Breeders’ Cup Distaff at the expense of Paseana. The admirable record of Jewel Princess included wins in not only the 1995 San Clemente but also the 1996 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Vanity, and Santa Margarita under the direction of Wally Dollase.

Evening Jewel won thrillers in the 2010 runnings of the San Clemente and Del Mar Oaks for Jim Cassidy, which almost made up for her heartbreaking loss in the Kentucky Oaks on dirt. Almost. And in 2012, Eden’s Moon took her winning form in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes on dirt to Del Mar for a score in the San Clemente on turf.

Of the nine in the San Clemente, all are grass fillies except Noted and Quoted, the winner of the Grade 1 Chandelier on dirt last year at Santa Anita. Since then, the daughter of The Factor has been inconsistent, prompting trainer Bob Baffert to give turf a try.

McPeek said he used the Florida Oaks on the grass at Tampa Bay Downs in March to get Daddys Lil Darling ready for the Ashland. But then, after her fine effort in the Kentucky Oaks, her people reached for the stars and sent the filly to England for the June 2 Epsom Oaks.

“She did fantastic over there,” McPeek said. “I was really confident she would have run really well.”

With French ace Olivier Peslier aboard, Daddys Lil Darling was among 10 going down to the post for the 1 1/2-mile classic just as a ferocious storm descended upon Epsom Downs. There was thunder and lightning, and the next thing McPeek knew, Peslier was on the ground, and his filly was running loose, forcing her to be scratched.

“I can’t tell you why or how that happened, though I was initially kicking myself that I should have had a pony with her,” McPeek said. “But even the jockey said he wouldn’t have taken a pony. He said he was just fine until the lightning and thunder spooked her.”

This shows good common sense on the part of Daddys Lil Darling.

“I think she thought the clap of the thunder was the opening of the gate,” McPeek said. “She was galloping up the track with a group of horses, and she just took off, thinking the race had begun.

“She came out of it unscathed, not a scratch on her,” he added. “She only ran for about a quarter of a mile.”

McPeek’s frustration was palpable. He’d been excited to see what his filly could do on such a prestigious international stage.

“It was kind of a hard pill to swallow,” McPeek said. “But we’re big boys. I’ve been at it long enough to know that it’s a game of disappointments.”

And Daddys Lil Darling? How did she react?

“We cooled her out, and she cleaned out her tub that night,” McPeek said. “She didn’t have any idea what happened.”

Probably just as well.