‘Like the kickoff of the second half for me,’ he says of 2-year-olds ready to run
FRANKLIN, Ky.— After starting four horses in 2021 at Kentucky Downs, trainer Jeff Hiles has a combined six entrants Thursday and Saturday, the opening two days of this year’s scheduled seven-day meeting presented by FanDuel.
“Kentucky Downs is kind of like the kickoff of the second half for me because I’ve got a lot of young horses that are getting ready to run,” Hiles said. “So, wherever we’ve been running, we’ve run maybe 10-15 different horses. Now, we’ve got about 35 that are getting ready to pop up.”
Hiles’ opening-day entrants are Metaphysical in the first race (a $150,000 maiden special weight sprint for 2-year-old fillies), Just Call Ray in the sixth race ($70,000 starter allowance for 3-year-olds at a mile) and Blue Devil in the 10th and final race ($150,000 maiden special weight event for 3-year-olds and up at a mile).
Metaphysical, by American Freedom, finished fourth sprinting in her Aug. 6 career debut on dirt at Horseshoe Indianapolis. Just Call Ray exits a fourth-place finish in an entry-level allowance/optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles on dirt Aug. 1 at Colonial Downs. Blue Devil, a 3-year-old gelded son of champion Uncle Mo, has made two starts for Hiles after being purchased earlier this year for $260,000 at Keeneland’s April Horses of Racing Age Sale. Blue Devil, in his last start, was beaten a head in a grassy 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight event Aug. 12 at Ellis Park.
“If Metaphysical draws in, she’ll be tough,” Hiles said. “She had her first race at (Horseshoe Indianapolis) and she just ran green. She made a good run at the end and that’s exactly what we wanted. She got a good race out of it and will improve every start. Just Call Ray, I think, he is going to love the grass. He ran a deceivingly good race at Gulfstream Park on the grass this winter. He finished seventh, but if you watch the replay, he was stuck behind a wall of horses and then had a ton of horse and couldn’t get through. It’s just taken me a little bit to get him back in the right spot. With Blue Devil, he’s been right there in all three of his starts. He still hasn’t put it all together yet.”
All three horses are owned by the trainer’s major client, Rocket Ship Racing, of Louisville, Ky., businessman Brook Smith and former trainer William Denzik. Hiles said he has around 25 horses for Rocket Ship Racing, which was formed in the spring of 2021. Hiles is based at HighPointe Farm & Training Center in La Grange, Ky., about 25 miles northeast of Louisville.
Hiles’ volume at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs entry box reflects the growth of his operation. Hiles, 43, was an assistant under nationally prominent trainer Kenny McPeek before striking out on his own in late 2018 at Churchill Downs. Hiles brought three horses that winter to Oaklawn Park and saddled his first career winner there, Loran Holiday, March 21, 2019. Hiles won two races overall in 2019, seven in 2020 and 15 last year, including his first career stakes victory. He already had 15 victories and a career-high $528,055 in purse earnings through Monday in 2022, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
“You just kind of keep your head down and put one foot in front of the other and work hard,” Hiles said. “I travel with all my horses. I haul all my horses. I’ve run at a bunch of different places and I’m always there, so a lot of the clients that I’ve picked up, and my big client, Brook Smith, they noticed that. You know, attention to details. It’s just worked out. Everything has worked out for me. Been lucky.”
Hiles recorded his first career Kentucky Downs victory last year with Silky Warrior and finished the meeting 1 of 4 in his meet debut. That $135,000 maiden special weight victory also represents the trainer’s most lucrative to date. Kentucky Downs has bumped the purse of those races to $150,000 in 2022 for registered Kentucky-breds, the highest figure in the world, according to track officials. Silky Warrior is entered in Saturday’s fifth race, a $160,000 entry-level allowance for fillies and mares, 3 and up, at 1 5/16 miles, the same distance as her maiden victory.
“It’s serious racing,” Hiles said. “It’s very hard to win down there. You’ve got full fields all the time. Your horse just has to take to that course. So, a little luck involved. Fast horse and hopefully they can get the job done.”
A one-time Marine Corps sergeant, Hiles is the son of veteran trainer Rick Hiles, longtime president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. Rick Hiles has three career victories at Kentucky Downs/Dueling Grounds.
Barn notes by Robert Yates
Trainer Jeff Hiles at Churchill Downs/Coady Photography