LEXINGTON, Ky. – Michael McCarthy has seen enough things go wrong that he can be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but the trainer harbors no such pessimism when it comes to Speech returning to action Friday at Keeneland.
“Everything’s gone very smooth in getting her ready to run,” McCarthy said this week from California. “Very smooth.”
Speech, winner of the Grade 1 Ashland here last summer, is part of a terrific lineup of seven fillies and mares in the Grade 3, $100,000 Doubledogdare Stakes, the highlight of a 10-race Friday card that starts at 1:05 p.m. Eastern. The Florida-bred filly will have Javier Castellano back aboard from post 6 when she makes her first start since finishing sixth here last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
“She’s trained very well since a little freshening,” McCarthy said. “This looks like a pretty good spot over a racetrack where she excelled last year.”
McCarthy will deputize local assistant Justin Curran and is staying home in California. He’ll be hoping the 1 1/16-mile Doubledogdare proves to be the first building block for Speech toward making the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar.
“We’re thinking two turns with her all year, at least for the time being,” McCarthy said.
So, too, do the connections of the other two favorites regard the Doubledogdare as an important first step toward a big year. Royal Flag and Bonny South also are making their seasonal debuts after having last seen action in November.
Royal Flag (post 1, Joel Rosario) ended 2020 with a victory in the Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm at Aqueduct for owner-breeder Will Farish and trainer Chad Brown. Never worse than third with four wins in eight career starts, the 5-year-old Candy Ride mare returned to training over the winter at Payson Park in Florida before being sent through a couple of works here by Brown assistant Whit Beckman. The latest work was a five-furlong breeze Saturday in 1:01.40.
Bonny South (post 5, Florent Geroux) won the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks a little more than a year ago before ending 2020 with three straight runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Alabama, Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan, and Grade 2 Falls City. Trainer Brad Cox said the Juddmonte Farms homebred has trained particularly well for her comeback, first at her Fair Grounds winter base and more recently at Churchill Downs.
“She’s going to have to move forward from 3 to 4, but I think she has,” Cox said.
The rest of the Doubledogdare field is High Regard, Graceful Princess, Eres Tu, and Bajan Girl. Of those, perhaps Eres Tu rates the best upset chance after winning 3 of 4 starts since coming under the care of trainer Arnaud Delacour.
There’s not a ton of early speed signed on in the Doubledogdare, meaning Speech figures as a forward factor from the outset, along with Eres Tu and Bajan Girl. Speech sat an eager second for much of her three-length triumph in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland.
“She’ll be sharp off the layoff, so you’d like to think Javier could get a good spot in the early going,” McCarthy said.
This is the 26th running of the Doubledogdare, named for the Claiborne Farm homebred who was a divisional champion in 1955 and 1956. Brown won the most recent running in 2019 when Electric Forest held off Go Google Yourself. The Doubledogdare was not held last year due to a pandemic-shortened stakes schedule. The stakes record of 1:41.20 was set in 1999 by Lu Ravi, trained by Carl Bowman.
The Doubledogdare is race 9 with a post of 5:30 p.m. and is part of a 50-cent late pick four (races 7-10) with a $200,000 pool guarantee. Three straight allowances directly precede the feature as races 6 through 8. Partly cloudy skies and a high temperature of just 61 are in the local forecast.
Keeneland continues to admit ontrack fans at about half-capacity with pandemic-related protocols in effect.