05/02/2011 1:09PM

Kentucky Oaks: Daisy Devine revives McKeever barn

Lou Hodges Jr.
Daisy Devine, with James Graham up, wins the Fair Grounds Oaks.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Andrew McKeever was mired in one of those horrible training slumps when he turned to the iconic veterinarian, the late Alex Harthill, for career advice.

“I told Doc I was tired of keeping people employed and costing me all this money,” said McKeever, a 44-year-old Irishman who moved to the United States from his native country more than 20 years ago. “Doc said, ‘Andrew, you’re too stupid to do anything else, just keep plugging.’ So I did.”

Of course, the story is told with tongue in cheek, and McKeever can laugh about it now that he has a viable contender for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks, which will be run Friday at Churchill Downs. Daisy Devine, a $5,500 yearling purchase whom McKeever trains for retired South Carolina businessman Jim Miller, won the richest Oaks prep this year, the $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, and figures as one of the secondary wagering choices in the 137th Oaks.

Daisy Devine was the first stakes winner for McKeever in more than two years. “There have been a lot of bad days,” said McKeever, who began training privately in California for John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery in 1995 and moved permanently to Kentucky two years later. “It’s great to have a filly like this. It’s a lot easier to train a good horse than a bad one.”

Daisy Devine, by Kafwain, quickly ascended the class ladder after winning a maiden-claiming sprint at Fair Grounds in early December. She won an allowance route, then finished second in the Silverbulletday before taking the March 26 Fair Grounds Oaks.

“Her winning the allowance is when I started to realize we might have a top filly,” said McKeever.

Joyful Victory figures as the favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, with Kathmanblu, Zazu, and maybe Daisy Devine among those next in line. As many as the Oaks limit of 14 3-year-old fillies were expected when entries were drawn Tuesday.

Derby Trial 1-2 in good shape

The first two finishers in that exciting conclusion to the Derby Trial here Saturday night both came out of the race in good order, according to their respective connections.

Machen, the rallying winner over Dominus in the one-mile Trial, probably will target the Grade 1 King’s Bishop in August at Saratoga as his main goal, said trainer Neil Howard, adding that the colt incurred a gash on his leg that won’t seriously alter his schedule.

Trainer Steve Asmussen, noting he has no particular race in mind for Dominus, said he was “very proud” of the colt’s race, just the third of his career. “I thought he ran huge, everything considered,” he said.

Both colts earned a 92 Beyer Speed Figure.

Big wagering menu on tap

Churchill once again is offering two-day wagers ending with the Derby. The $1 Oaks-Derby double, first offered in 1996, and the 50-cent Oaks-Woodford-Derby pick three, which made its debut in 2009, are part of a colossal wagering menu here Friday and Saturday.

Churchill introduced a 50-cent pick five with its Saturday night opener and also will continue to offer the $2 pick six. One notable switch for the coming weekend: Superfectas normally available for a dime will be a $1 minimum on Oaks and Derby Days.

Advance wagering on both the Oaks and Derby cards will be available the previous days.

◗ It took a big payoff on a 2-year-old first-time starter, but trainer Rusty Arnold kept his Keeneland streak alive Friday when Catching Reys ($50) captured the fourth race on the closing-day program by a neck.

Arnold has sent out at least one winner every Keeneland meet since 1986, except for one late-80s meet when he had no starters.

◗ Apprentice rider Marcelino Pedroza returned from a three-month layoff late in the Keeneland meet and will be active at Churchill beyond the Derby, according to agent Julio Espinoza. Pedroza, 18, will apply for an extension that would allow him to keep riding with his apprentice allowance for the amount of time he missed because of a knee injury. Pedroza was the leading rider at the 2010 holiday meet at Turfway Park.

◗ An ontrack crowd of 38,142 turned out for the first night opener in track history, setting a track record not counting Oaks, Derby, or Breeders’ Cup.

◗ Mother’s Day at the races is an annual tradition for hundreds of Louisville families, but it won’t be this year. Because of the way the calendar falls, Mother’s Day is on May 8, which is the Sunday after the Derby – and Churchill never runs on the Sunday after the Derby.