Work rider Stephens thrilled by Ancient Rome’s $2M Mint Million win

Published 2:38 pm Monday, September 4, 2023

By Tim Wilkin, Bowling Green Daily News

FRANKLIN — Ancient Rome poked his head out of his stall on a steamy Sunday morning at the isolation barn at Kentucky Downs. The 4-year-old colt looked like a million bucks. How about two?

The day before, the son of War Front had captured the Grade 3, $2 million Mint Millions at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs and had pocketed the winner’s share of $1,176,600, boosting his career earnings to $1,528,247.

The English invader had taken down the richest turf race in the United States outside of the Breeders’ Cup, with Jamie Spencer also making the trip across the pond to ride him.

On the morning after, there was no big entourage waiting to see the big winner. Trainer Charlie Hills was back home in England; Dr. Jim Hay and his wife Fitri, the owners, were in Budapest when the big horse was rolling down the stretch to win the Mint Millions by a half-length.

Ancient Rome was with 26-year-old Kayleigh Stephens, who calls herself a work rider for Hills. She has been the constant companion of Ancient Rome, who arrived in the United States a couple weeks ago.

They flew from England to Indianapolis and then vanned to Churchill Downs, where they stayed for a week. Then they shipped south to Kentucky Downs, staying here for a week and then taking all the money.

Stephens expected that Ancient Rome would run well in the Mint Millions. But win? If she thought that going in, she wasn’t telling anyone.

“When you come out for these trips abroad, it’s so tough to know how the horse is going to handle it,” Stephens said after watching Ancient Rome munch on some carrots. “You could have every chance going … but if these horses come out and they don’t eat or if they have a setback or things are not straightforward, it’s a big change. Routine for these horses is massive.

“To come to another country and completely change their routine is a big ask to say you could be confident about them running well,” she said. “But, I would be silly to say we did not expect it. We hoped for it and we wanted it. We were quietly optimistic.”

What is next for Ancient Rome is unclear. Stephens said the colt will head home to England earlier this week. A return trip to the United States for the Breeders’ Cup could certainly be possible, but Stephens said that decision would come from Hills.

Ancient Rome began his career in France, running for Coolmore and trainer Andre Fabre. After being sold to the Hays, Ancient Room eventually came into the Hills barn and the Mint Millions became an end of summer goal.

When he raced in France, the majority of Ancient Rome’s starts on grass came on soft courses. Twelve of his 15 lifetime starts have come on wet turf and he has four wins to show for that. Stephens wasn’t sure what to expect when they got to Kentucky Downs and found a very firm turf to run on.

“On his breeding, it would suggest he would like the quick ground,” Stephens said. “Soft ground in France is soft ground and he ran pretty well on it. It’s pretty hard to say how he would handle it.”

Ancient Rome liked it just fine. Stephens said she was rooting her boy home through the stretch of the Mint Millions. She said she was “cantering home with him.”

“When I watched this turning and he’s coming now, and I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to win this,’ ” Stephens said. “‘No, we can’t win this.’ ‘We’re going to win this $2 million race.’ It was up and done. You’re almost disbelieving. You’re thinking, ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do this.’ But he did. Full credit to the horse, everybody at home. Great training performance. Great ride.”

Then it was her and the horse afterwards. Following the pictures in the winner’s circle, Stephens didn’t stick around for any interviews. She immediately led the horse back to the barn. She did that because there was no one else here.

“My main priority was that horse,” Stephens said.

She has been working in the industry for 10 years. She was once a jockey and rode some winners. For the past two years she has worked for Hills. Being at Kentucky Downs was the first time she had ever been to the United States.

So, she and Ancient Rome disappeared from the paddock, made the short walk back to the barn and that was it.

Ancient Rome, who was bred in Kentucky, is now 2-for-2 since transferring to Hills’ barn. Overall, he has five wins, three seconds and two thirds in 15 starts.

“Brilliant,” Stephens said, looking at her horse. “Could not have expected anything better. Really, he has done all you could ask of him.”