Cousin Winnie
Cousin Winnie won at first asking at Charles Town. Photo by Coady Photography.

Although he prefers to watch most of the live racing from Charles Town from his home at nearby Beau Ridge Farm, John McKee has grown accustomed to having the best seat in the house.

He certainly enjoyed what he saw Friday night watching his homebred filly, Cousin Winnie, capture the first maiden special weight event of the season for West Virginia-bred juveniles.

Heading into the first juvenile filly race of the meet at Charles Town — the subsequent state-bred boys race for freshmen scheduled for Saturday night did not fill — much of the attention focused on O K Smarty Pants, who was made the 4-5 favorite for owner-trainer Michael Sterling off a series of sharp works over the strip.

One year earlier Sterling had saddled the odds-on favorite for the first state-bred boys race for freshmen, Hopping Henry, who engaged in an early speed duel with the McKee-trained Youthinkthatsfunny and settled for second when Natural Attraction swept past them both for a 25-1 upset for trainer Javier Contreras.

While Sterling would again saddle the favorite for this event, McKee saddled a pair of fillies that got modest support in their career debuts. Cousin Winnie was the 5.60-1 third choice, while Silky Serena was 7.50-1 and fifth choice in the field of seven. Six of the seven runners went off at 8-1 or less. 

Only La Cubana went off as a longshot, at 28-1 in her debut for trainer Victor Espinosa of Noble’s Honey fame. She would seriously outrun her odds at first asking, showing speed and running third at a big price.

Just before the gates opened, Cousin Winnie was a little restless and jockey Denis Araujo got off her before finally settling into the saddle. 

When the gates opened, Cousin Winnie broke well, while favored O K Smarty Pants missed the break and spotted the field two lengths. But it was La Cubana who gained the early initiative before being immediately joined along the rail by Cousin Winnie, who forged through along the inside under steady urging from Araujo.

Cousin Winnie and La Cubana continued their duel by the opener in 22.71 seconds. Meanwhile, O K Smarty Pants overcame her slow start by shifting down to the rail to rush through into contention before tipping out into the three path to join the top pair. After Cousin Winnie shook loose from La Cubana, she was quickly engaged by O K Smarty Pants nearing the stretch, and those two battled briefly until the McKee homebred edged clear to a length score in 53.98 for the one-turn dash distance of 4 1/2 furlongs on a fast main track.

While most of the McKee homebreds are products of his prominent sire, Fiber Sonde, Cousin Winnie is by Firing Line out of a Deputy Minister mare, Aunt Winnie (Ire). McKee had purchased Aunt Winnie privately in foal to Deputy Minister. Cousin Winnie was foaled and raised at McKee’s Beau Ridge Farm. 

The newcomer quickly ascended to the head of the class among their juveniles.

“She was already in foal when we bought the mare, and from the time she was foaled Cyndy called her ‘Winnie’,” McKee said. “I was a little surprised at the way she acted in the gate, because she had never done that before. She got her gate card and she was really good working from the gate. I thought she would win tonight. I knew the favorite was going to press her early, but that longshot broke better than any of us. My filly is really on the small side, but she’s got a little ability, and she pulled away from the favorite in the lane.”

McKee noted that eight of his two-year-olds already have their gate cards. He had entered one colt and one filly for the Saturday juvenile race that was supposed to kick off the card but never filled. McKee also mentioned that he has another 14 juveniles on the farm who still need to get their gate cards. Of the current group, Cousin Winnie had showed the most promise, and her debut score validated McKee’s assessment of his first wave of freshmen fillies.

“Well, I ran my best two tonight and I expected Cousin Winnie to win and I’m content with Silky Serena [who ran fourth],” McKee said. “That’s what I expected from her [Silky Serena]. We have a lot more on the farm who still need to get their gate cards. I was surprised the two-year-old race on Saturday night didn’t fill. I entered one colt and one filly and thought the race would go with six or seven.”