Trainer Rusty Arnold can’t stress enough how his millionaire charge Morticia owes him nothing at this stage of her career. What Arnold says he most definitely owes the daughter of Twirling Candy, however, is the benefit of the doubt.
Since her first race on the turf in January 2017, Morticia’s past performance lines have read like a tribute to consistency. Including her 10 victories – which feature two graded-stakes triumphs – the bay mare finished in top three 22 times in her first 27 starts with her lone off-the-board effort coming in her career debut on the dirt in July 2016.
Imagine then how jarring a sight it was for Morticia’s connections to see start No. 28 of her career end with the 6-year-old being eased across the line last in a field of eight at Churchill Downs on June 19. A sigh of relief thankfully came when nothing was found to be physically amiss. And because that effort runs completely contrary to her body of work, Arnold and owner G. Watts Humphrey, Jr. are giving their mare a chance to chalk that day up as an anomaly when she starts in Sunday’s $100,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Sprint going 5 ½ furlongs at the RUNHAPPY Summer Meet at Ellis Park.
The Ladies Sprint is part of Ellis’ third annual Kentucky Downs Preview Day: five $100,000 turf stakes positioned as launching pads into big-money stakes at the all-grass track in Franklin, Ky. The winners of the Ellis stakes races get a fees-paid berth in the corresponding race at Kentucky Downs.
Not only has Morticia earned the right to have a line drawn through one bad day, she has some legitimate reasons in Arnold’s mind as to why her 2020 campaign hasn’t gotten off on the right foot. Like many in the racing community, Arnold had the schedule for many of his horses thrown off kilter due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing many tracks to cancel or postpone scheduled meets. Count Morticia among that group as the veteran mare wasn’t able to get her season underway until May 28 at Churchill Downs when she ran fourth in an allowance race where she was beaten just a length for the win.
Her poor outing three weeks later may have been a case, Arnold says, of her coming back too quick off of that seasonal bow. In the time since, Morticia returned to her trainer’s Keeneland base and has gone about the process of trying to recapture the form that has made her one of the most sustained, formidable threats among female turf sprinters.
“You know it’s been a disappointing year with her,” said Arnold, who also co-bred Morticia with Humphrey. “She got started about 2-3 months later than we anticipated because of what went on. We were going to run in Florida; that didn’t happen. Keeneland got canceled so we ran at Churchill and she ran a good race there. She got beat a length even though she was fourth and we were pretty happy with it. Her next race was her first time off the board in her life on the turf and we really couldn’t figure it out. So we brought her back to Keeneland, took a step back to zero and started over.
“Maybe I ran her back too quick off a layoff. I just don’t know,” Arnold continued. “Maybe it was the wrong thing to do. But she’s had plenty of time for this race and we’ve been planning on running here. The race came up as scheduled and it gives us plenty of time to get back to Kentucky Downs, which is one of our big targets.”
Rare are the times when Morticia doesn’t validate the collective faith of her team, hence the reason she is still honing her craft in 2020.
Arnold and Humphrey originally planned to retire the mare at conclusion of her 5-year-old season, and she gave them an admirable note to potentially end on when she won the Grade 3 Ladies Sprint at Kentucky Downs last September prior to running second to eventual Grade 1-winner Oleksandra in the Grade 3 Buffalo Trace Franklin County Stakes at Keeneland.
After watching distaffers Belvoir Bay and Blue Prize win their respective Breeders’ Cup races at the age of 6 last November, Arnold and Humphrey agreed those kind of moments are the reason they’re in this sport to begin with – and they had a mare still capable of eliciting some high-level jubilation.
“Part of it was we were having fun. She had finished up the year really good…she’s a sound filly, and we were having a good time,” Arnold said of the decision to keep Morticia in training. “We went to the Breeders’ Cup and we watched a filly win the Breeders’ Cup (Turf) Sprint at 6, we watched Blue Prize win the Distaff at 6. We look up and they’re bringing Enable back at 6. So Mr. Humphrey and I had a talk and said ‘Let’s run her another year; we’re having a great time.’
“Basically, ones like her are hard to find. Fillies like that are hard to find. It is a business, but there is fun in this business and we were just shipping her all around and anticipated having another good year with her.”
If Morticia’s outing this weekend indeed gets her back to Kentucky Downs, it will mark the third time she will compete in the Ladies Sprint as she also finished third in that test in 2017. If she tells Arnold she really is done competitively, though, he will send her on to her broodmare career knowing she left nothing on the table.
“If we have another (off start) she doesn’t owe us a thing. She’s been a wonderful filly for us and we’ll retire her if she doesn’t come back to herself,” Arnold said. “But we’re anticipating finishing out the year with her.”
In addition to saddling Morticia on Sunday, Arnold will also have a two-pronged entry for the Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf in graded-stakes winners English Affair and Daddy Is a Legend – the latter of whom he is sending out on behalf of trainer George Weaver.
English Affair, a Calumet Farm homebred, won the Grade 3 Cardinal Handicap in 2018 but only made one start the following season before going to the sidelines. The daughter of English Channel is winless in three starts this year but has an affinity for Ellis Park, breaking her maiden there in 2017 and finishing second in the 2018 Preview Ladies Turf.
“She’s doing well. It’s also kind of a prep race for Kentucky Downs,” Arnold said. “(The Ladies Turf) is maybe a tad too short for her, but it was either run here or ship somewhere else. We just decided to stay at home and run here, and she’s run good here. She can win at that distance. We can go (to Ellis) and go right to the (1 5/16-mile) race at Kentucky Downs with her.”
With Weaver unable to travel to Kentucky due to restrictions brought on by the pandemic, owners Jim and Susan Hill are charging Arnold to send out Daddy Is a Legend for her seasonal bow. The 5-year-old mare was second in California’s Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes last December and her most recent stakes win came in New York’s 2018 Grade 3 Lake George Stakes.
“She’s actually been at Margaux Farm most of the time and I’ve had her probably 2 ½ weeks,” Arnold said. “(The Hills) wanted to run her and with (Weaver) not being able to move around, they sent her in and I’m going to run her here. There aren’t any plans beyond that.”
Alicia Hughes is director of NTRA Communications and an award-winning turf writer. She previously served as racing editor and staff writer for The Blood-Horse following 11 years covering horse racing for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
(Photos below: G. Watts Humphrey’s Morticia winning last year’s Grade 3, $500,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Sprint under Tyler Gaffalione. Coady Photography)