The RUNHAPPY Meet at Kentucky Downs couldn’t come soon enough for Joe Sharp.
The trainer has always done well at the all-grass meet. That includes winning at Kentucky Downs with the first starter after opening his own stable in 2014, with Holiday Drama ridden by Sharp’s wife, Rosie Napravnik. He has won at least one race every Kentucky Downs meet since. Last year Sharp earned a share of the training title with Wesley Ward and Ian Wilkes at four wins apiece. That ended the run of four straight Kentucky Downs meet titles for Sharp’s former boss, the track’s all-time win leader Mike Maker.
Sharp has Midnight Tea Time and Hierarchy entered in Wednesday’s $300,000 Tapit Stakes for horses who haven’t won a stakes in 2020. Hierarchy was cross-entered in Saturday’s $1 million Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, one of five stakes on the showcase Calumet Farm Day card. Sharp also entered the stakes-winner Quebec in the $500,000, Grade 3 Real Solution Ladies Sprint and Fast Boat in the $700,000, Grade 3 RUNHAPPY Turf Sprint among his five entries Saturday. Fast Boat needs two scratches to run in the overfilled RUNHAPPY Turf Sprint, whose winner receives a fees-paid spot in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) with the six-furlong stakes being a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series’ “Win And You’re In” race.
“Kentucky Downs has been a track that’s been really good to us over the years,” Sharp said. “Being based here in Kentucky, you know what kind of horses to look for, what kind of distances to target over there.
“I was telling my wife, we can make our whole year this month. In a normal year, it’s a really, really fun place to go to the races. You can bring the family and enjoy it. It’s real casual. That’s one of my favorite parts about it. I was saying my favorite day of the year is when they take entries for opening day at Kentucky Downs. The track just has a great feeling to it.”
This has been a difficult year for Sharp, to put it mildly. He had to undergo surgeries June 4 and July 24 connected to a brain tumor, with a procedure in between to insert a lumbar drain. The good news was that the tumor, known as an acoustic neuroma, was non-cancerous. The bad news was that in order to remove it, the surgeons also had to remove auditory nerves that had wrapped around it, rendering him deaf in his right ear.
Because the tumor was benign and he knew he was going to lose his hearing in an ear, Sharp said he delayed surgery for a year. Amid that, he had a rash of horses at Churchill Downs last fall and the Fair Grounds disqualified for testing over the limit for the dewormer Levamisole.
“It just keeps coming this year, for sure,” Sharp said. “But we’re tough…. We’re going on and doing our thing. We’ve always had a good reputation prior to that. It was just unlucky. I think if I had to guess after talking to veterinarians and specialists that most likely the horses were recontaminating the stalls. That’s why it’s carried on. There’s no other explanation.”
Sharp said he almost had his surgery last November “but I chickened out… There’s never a good time for that.
“I’d never even broken a bone,” said the 35-year-old former jockey, who until being grounded by the surgeries got on many of his horses in morning training. “So I’ve been very lucky. That being said, I’m not the best patient ever because I wasn’t used to that. I’ve never been unfit since I was 16. I couldn’t lift over 10 pounds for 90 days and then when I had my second surgery, that started over again. So like the kids, the barn, I can’t bend down. That was the toughest part.”
One of Sharp’s four wins last year at Kentucky Downs came with a maiden called Art Collector. Unfortunately for Sharp, one of his Levamisole disqualifications came in a subsequent Churchill Downs allowance race in which Art Collector finished first by 7 1/2 lengths. Owner Bruce Lunsford, who had sent Art Collector to trainer Tommy Drury to bring back off a layoff, opted to keep the colt with Drury. They are 4 for 4 since, including winning Keeneland’s Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass and the $200,000 Ellis Park Derby. After missing the Derby with a minor but untimely foot issue, Art Collector is being pointed for the Oct. 3 Preakness Stakes.
Sharp said he continues to have a good relationship with Lunsford and harbors no hard feelings about losing Art Collector. With his surgeries, he noted it would have been difficult to have a horse on the delayed Kentucky Derby trail anyway.
Mostly, Sharp is grateful just to be back at the track, returning a little more than two weeks ago. Midnight Tea Time got the scratch he needed to get into Wednesday’s Tapit off the also-eligible list. In his last start he was second by a neck in a third-level allowance race won by He’s No Lemon, an unusual result where both horses in the exacta are out of the same mare, It’s Tea Time. (As an aside, He’s No Lemon is entered in the Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup.) Midnight Tea Time won a second-level allowance race at Kentucky Downs last year by a nose over Combatant, who went on to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.
Sharp said that a final decision will be made with owner Carl Moore but that they believe the Kentucky Turf Cup’s 1 1/2-mile distance will suit Hierarchy. Hierarchy was a good second in the Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Cup won by Factor This, who then was second in last Saturday’s Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.
“He’s a horse we’ve always wanted to try going that far,” Sharp said. “He ran really big going a mile and a quarter against Factor This, got a really big (handicapping) number. There are limited opportunities to find a race going a mile and a half. If he fires and runs his last two numbers back, he’s very competitive with these horses. Obviously Zulu Alpha is in top form right now. Arklow’s form isn’t what it was last year at this time, but he’s still consistent. Honestly I think it comes down to what distance is going to suit him better, because the Tapit came up pretty tough as well.”
Sharp believes firmer turf will help Quebec, a $105,000 purchase at Keeneland’s November sale last fall, in the Ladies Sprint.
“She ran some really good races at Lone Star for us,” Sharp said of a pair of seconds before Quebec finished seventh in the Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf. “The day we ran her at Ellis Park, it was boggy. She’s a California horse. They like to hear their feet rattle. So we’re going to cut her back in distance to 6 1/2 furlongs. That uphill, I think she’ll really like.”
Sharp’s best finish opening day was a third but he’s optimistic about the rest of the meet, saying, “I think our meet will get stronger as it goes, as far as entries are concerned.”