Ambush of talent awaits trainer Baltas in Wiley

The best Thoroughbred race in the nation on Saturday is named for an 18th century kidnapping victim who staged a brave escape in the face of harsh elements and savage captors. At least, that's how the legend goes.

In such cases, this reporter tends to lean on the advice handed down from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," to wit, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Kentuckians went nuts over the legend of Jenny Wiley, the pioneer woman whose story involves a multi-tribal raiding party, the death of her children, and nearly a year of captivity before the plucky lass broke free from restraints and fled to sanctuary back in the white world.

As legends go, this will do, although there are a couple of dozen versions of the tale and holes in the story through which you could drive a Conestoga wagon.

This has not stopped the good folks of eastern Kentucky from plastering Jenny Wiley all over the place. There is a Jenny Wiley Theatre, a Jenny Wiley Trail, a Jenny Wiley overpass, a Jenny Wiley Festival, and a Jenny Wiley State Resort Park.

Saturday's $350,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland has the makings of a legendary renewal with Breeders' Cup winners Lady Eli and Catch a Glimpse entertaining six of their friends at 1 1/16 miles on the grass in the first Grade 1 race of the season for the female turf division.

Time and Motion, the winner of the 2016 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup over the Keeneland course, needs no introduction. Dickinson, Medaglia d'Oro's latest filly whiz, swept through a pair of stakes in Florida. Illuminant, the winner of last year's Gamely, has come back strong after a long layoff. Kitten's Roar is fresh from a profitable Fair Grounds campaign, while Quidura emerges from the stable of Graham Motion unbeaten in two American starts.

Then there is Goodyearforroses, on hand with Illuminant from California, representing the robust barn of trainer Richard Baltas and his shiny collection of turf mares. Just last weekend, Baltas ran one-two in the Grade 2 Royal Heroine at Santa Anita with Hillhouse High and Mokat, and Goodyearforroses has both of them beat on form this season.

Goodyearforroses is an Irish-bred daughter of the late European champion Azamour and out of a Galileo mare. As such, she is bred to run all day and into the night on the grass, which she did often for Roger Attfield in Canada last year. Even so, two of her best wins have come in races switched from turf to the main track, most recently the Robert Frankel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita in late December, her first start for Baltas.

With the switch to the mud that day, the Frankel lost all but four runners and its Grade 3 rating (don't get me started). It also confirmed what her new trainer had suspected all along.

"You never quite know what you've got until they run for you," Baltas said. "But she had worked so good on the dirt, and she was very sound, I thought she could handle the off track. She gave me no reason not to try."

Baltas, 55, is coming off the best year of his career, with $4.6 million in stable earnings, and he is on pace to top that figure in 2017. The native of Indiana grew up in Southern California and worked for trainers Richard Mandella, Wally Dollase, and Barry Abrams, but he considers Lexington and Keeneland his starting point in the racing business.

"In 1983, I moved to Kentucky to go to the Kentucky Equine Institute," Baltas said. "I worked the Keeneland yearling sales. I worked for John Ward as a groom. I haven't had any luck winning races at Keeneland yet, but I've always had a fondness for this place."

It was Thursday morning, and Baltas had just arrived to put the final touches on Goodyearforroses.

"She looked good, went great," Baltas said. "I know the race is extremely tough, but she has a legitimate shot. She won her last race pretty easily."

The Abbondanza Racing syndicate, led by Bing Bush Jr. and Nathan McCauley, bought Goodyearforroses last fall after her close third in a Grade 3 Woodbine event. She has won all three of her starts for Abbondanza, including the Grade 2 Santa Ana in her most recent outing, but Baltas does not claim to have worked any particular miracles, following in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Attfield.

"She's put on weight -- not that she's a big horse -- and she has a bit of an attitude as well, kind of a fighter," Baltas said. "She's very tough around the barn. Trying to approach her is like dealing with an alpha male."

That probably explains why jockey Corey Nakatani fits Goodyearforroses so well. They are perfect together, with a score in the overnight Astra Stakes sandwiched between the Frankel and the Santa Ana. Now in the midst of a career revival after a lengthy sabbatical, Nakatani also has plenty of Keeneland experience, with victories in the Blue Grass, First Lady, Commonwealth, and the 2000 running of the Jenny Wiley with a very accomplished mare owned by Allen Paulson. Her name was Astra.

"Really?" Baltas said. "Well, that works."