McKees hesitantly make right call with Silky Serena

In the days, even hours leading up to last Saturday night’s $75,000 Fancy Buckles Stakes for West Virginia-bred fillies and mares, trainer John McKee and his wife, owner-breeder Cynthia McKee, contemplated whether or not to run their three-year-old filly Silky Serena against older rivals in the one-turn dash going 4 1/2-furlongs.

Just over 52 seconds after the gates opened for the Fancy Buckles, their decision to leave Silky Serena in the race had proven to be the correct one, as the daughter of Fiber Sonde enhanced her resume with her second stakes tally.

Just under a month earlier, Silky Serena had earned her first, beating other sophomore fillies in the Its Binn Too Long Stakes when off at odds of 9-1.

“She came out of that first stakes really good, so I nominated her for the Fancy Buckles and wanted to take a look at who else might be coming before I entered,” trainer John McKee said. “I was a little hesitant at first to try her against older fillies because there was really good ones nominated and they had a lot more experience than she did.”

Reluctantly, he entered his filly. But soon he had a better feeling about things.

“Even after I entered I thought about scratching,” McKee remembered. “But when I saw she drew the 10-hole I decided we might have well stay in since I thought she could stay out of trouble out there.”

As she had done in the Its Binn Too Long, Silky Serena was able to break well and work out an uneventful trip and that propelled her to her second straight stakes score, third win in four starts this year and five tries overall and pushed her lifetime earnings to nearly $120,000.

Owner-breeder Cynthia McKee had misgivings of her own prior to the Fancy Buckles.

“In the afternoon, I thought about maybe scratching,” said McKee, “I didn’t want to see her try to do too much too soon. She bucked her shins in her first start [July 2, 2021] and needed some time off after that. She won her first start this year [on March 24] then was second in an allowance but she has come back to win two stakes.”

Silky Serena’s dam Safe At First failed to win a race in five starts at Tampa Bay Downs, the first three against maiden special weight foes then the last two against maiden claimers. But second dam Keep Me Safe, an Oklahoma-bred by Horatius, concluded her career with a 5-5-7 slate and over $130,000 banked from 36 career outings. She won three allowance races and finished second once in nine stakes tries.

McKee, who purchased Safe At First in 2009, quipped that she was the first and only bidder on Safe At First. McKee ended up buying the mare, in foal to Champali, for all of $1,200. Prior to Silky Serena, Safe At First’s best offspring had been Mr. Ripken, a son of Fiber Sonde who earned nearly $200,000.

“She was the first horse to go through the sale and the opening bid was $1,000 and I put my hand up and no one else did,” McKee recalled. “She’s been a good broodmare for me. Mr. Ripken was really good, and I named this filly for Serena Williams, the tennis player. She came back from her injury really good and she’s been terrific this year.”

Silky Serena has won her last two stakes and also graduated in a one-turn maiden special weight event. Her trainer knows, however, that she’ll need to go farther to take advantage of the best opportunities at Charles Town.

The only remaining stakes for state-bred three-year-old fillies, the Sylvia Bishop Memorial and West Virginia Division of Tourism Breeders’ Classic Oct. 8, are at seven seven furlongs. And those for fillies and mares three and up are at seven furlongs or beyond.

With the $75,000 Sylvia Bishop Memorial for state-bred sophomore fillies now one month away on July 23, the same night as the $75,000 Robert Leavitt Memorial for state-bred three-year-olds, McKee admits he will not have time to give Silky Serena a two-turn prep in between.

“Her next two, three starts will probably be at seven furlongs,” McKee said. “I was hoping to get her a race going two turns before the [Sylvia Bishop], but there are only five weeks in between. I will have to train her a little differently between now and then, but I think she’ll be okay going seven furlongs.”

All in all, it’s a good spot to be for the McKees: with an improving three-year-old filly and some good opportunities still in front of her.

“She’ll get to spend the rest of the summer and fall in three-year-old races,” John McKee said. “Now, we’ll find out if she can be just as good getting a little more distance.”


  • SILKY SERENA won the Its Binn Too Long Stakes. Photo Coady Photography.
  • Silky Serena won the Fancy Buckles Stakes. Photo Coady Photography.
  • Silky Serena won the Fancy Buckles Stakes. Photo Coady Photography.