Updated on 09/16/2011 7:58AM

Minister's Baby is on a roll

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HENDERSON, Ky. - Although the name of the race sounds better than something like the Soybean Stakes, and more authentic than the Western Kentucky Derby, no one at Ellis Park seems able to come up with a good reason why the track's signature race is called the Gardenia Handicap.

Not that it matters, for these are far more relevant facts: $200,000 purse, solid field of fillies and mares, best race of the meet.

Ten horses, led by Minister's Baby and Caressing, have been entered in the Gardenia, the Grade 3 race that will be run Saturday at Ellis for the 21st time. Minister's Baby, winner of the Iowa Distaff in her last start, could be a slight favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race.

"She's really turned into a terrific filly," trainer Ken McPeek said Thursday from Saratoga. "She's put on the weight she needs to be competitive in races like this, and I think that's been a main difference in her old form and what she's been doing this year."

Minister's Baby, a 4-year-old Deputy Minister filly owned by the Mackin family of Louisville, has won three of her last four starts. Although Craig Perret will travel from Saratoga to ride Minister's Baby, McPeek said he would stay behind to watch the race on simulcast.

Probably the main challenger to Minister's Baby is Caressing, the 2000 champion 2-year-old filly, who was second by a nose in the Iowa Distaff. Not only would a victory by Caressing make her a millionaire, but because she is in foal to Fusaichi Pegasus and will be retired after the race, it would give her connections a tremendous thrill.

"It would be a great way to send her home," said David Vance, who trains Caressing for Churchill Downs chairman Carl Pollard.

Other contenders include Happily Unbridled and Gal on the Go, the respective one-two finishers four weeks ago in the HBPA Handicap; Softly, already a four-time winner this year; and Lakenheath, a romping winner of a recent allowance prep at Arlington Park. Softly and Lakenheath will be coupled for wagering purposes.

The rest of the field is Red N'Gold, Town Queen, Katy Kat, and Countess Marq.

The Gardenia, first run in 1982 as the Stroh's Handicap, has evolved into a respectable barometer for fillies and mares in this region. The winner last year was Asher, ridden by Mark Guidry.

The Gardenia is carded as the 10th of 11 Saturday races, with post time set for 5:25 p.m. Eastern.

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