10/11/2012 1:54PM

Keeneland: Stephanie’s Kitten looks royal In Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ken Ramsey likes to talk about how he rubbed elbows with Queen Elizabeth II in her private skybox at the Royal Ascot meet in 2009. At one point during his brief visit, Ramsey said that he exclaimed: “Your Majesty, I believe you have the best seat in the house!”

There’s a good chance Ramsey will be yucking it up again after the race named in honor of the Queen is run Saturday at Keeneland, where his homebred filly Stephanie’s Kitten figures to be favored in the 29th running of the Grade 1, $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup.

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“We’ve been looking forward to this race for quite a while,” said Ramsey, who bred and owns Stephanie’s Kitten with his wife, Sarah. “If we win, I’m going to send the Queen a win picture, along with an old photo of her that I’ve been trying to get ahold of from when she was here for the first running in 1984.”

Stephanie’s Kitten has been racing royalty for more than a year now, having earned her first graded victory at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Alcibiades on opening day of the 2011 fall meet. She has gone on to win 3 of 5 subsequent races, all of them stakes, the most notable being the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Churchill Downs last November.

Stephanie’s Kitten was supposed to race at Royal Ascot this summer, but a minor illness prevented her from shipping overseas. A daughter of Kitten’s Joy, she showed no adverse signs after that setback when she ran two big races on the Saratoga turf, finishing fourth with a very troubled trip in the Grade 2 Lake George before shaking loose to win the Grade 2 Lake Placid.

“I’m on board with Mr. Ramsey,” said her trainer, Wayne Catalano. “The filly has been doing just great, and I think she’ll run like we all think she’s supposed to Saturday.”

John Velazquez has the mount on Stephanie’s Kitten, who will break from post 5 in the field of eight in the 1 1/8-mile turf race.

Ramsey and Catalano said they would like to run Stephanie’s Kitten back in the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita if she fares well Saturday. Typically, that isn’t necessarily the end-game goal for others trying the QE II, given that it has evolved into a year-end signature race unto itself within the niche division of 3-year-old turf fillies. In fact, Rusty Arnold, trainer of Centre Court, said he and breeder-owner G. Watts Humphrey would settle for winning the QE II, period.

“We’ve had this race on our radar for months now,” said Arnold.

Julien Leparoux has the mount on Centre Court, who will break from post 4.

Stephanie’s Kitten and Centre Court became familiar with each other in their two latest meetings at Saratoga. Both have tactical speed, and with the presence of the speedy Dayatthespa in the QE II lineup, there figures to be quite a bit of tactical maneuvering going on.

“I imagine we’ll be right behind Dayatthespa,” said Arnold.

Dayatthespa (post 8, Javier Castellano) is one of two major contenders to be saddled by Chad Brown, the young New York-based trainer who won three turf stakes alone last weekend, including the Grade 3 Bourbon last Sunday at Keeneland. His other QE II starter, Samitar, will start right alongside in post 7 with Ramon Dominguez up. Samitar was a narrow winner as an odds-on favorite of her last race, the Grade 1 Garden City on Sept. 15 at Belmont Park.

The longer-priced fillies in this QE II are Better Lucky (post 1, Shaun Bridgmohan), Tannery (post 2, Elvis Trujillo), Treasured Up (post 3, Brian Hernandez Jr.), and Somali Lemonade (post 6, Joe Rocco Jr.).

The QE II, the sixth and final Grade 1 race of this Keeneland fall meet, was inaugurated in 1984 when, as Ramsey mentioned, the Queen was here to see the race for the only time. It goes as the ninth of 10 Saturday races, with post time set for 5:21 p.m. Eastern. First post is 1:05.

The weather forecast for Saturday is for mostly sunny skies and a high of 76.

Before the races, fans are invited to have their photo taken in the paddock with the longtime Keeneland bugler, Bucky Sallee, from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30.