Like many in the racing community, Nick Caruso counts himself a fan of champion Groupie Doll, grateful for the opportunity to get close to the mare who has been the dominant figure in the female sprint division.
However, the majority of Caruso's affections go to the runner who most recently tested Groupie Doll's mastery. For in the 11 months he has been on his own as a trainer, the 24-year-old has Purely Hot to thank for putting him in the kind of company it often takes horsemen years to achieve.
Caruso will get the chance to take on Groupie Doll during the opening weekend of Keeneland's Fall Meet, but his fandom will be shoved aside when he sends Purely Hot out against the reigning champion in Saturday's Grade II, $200,000 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes.
Just a handful of months into Caruso's training career, Purely Hot became his first stakes winner when she captured the Satin and Lace Stakes at Presque Isle Downs on June 9. On the night of Sept. 9, the feisty bay Caruso originally claimed for $4,000 back in January was in front of Groupie Doll about 10 strides before the wire before giving way late to run second in the Grade II, $400,000 Presque Isle Masters.
Having run over all three surfaces in her 24 starts, Purely Hot has found her comfort zone on synthetic tracks — and in Caruso's upstart shedrow. Four of her 11 career wins have come since landing in his care and, with that, the best advertising of his horsemanship Caruso could have dreamed up.
"Last fall I took the chance (opening up his stable) and luckily I got her at the beginning of it," Caruso said from his Keeneland barn, where Purely Hot constantly demanded his attention. "She makes it look a lot easier. It's one of those things where she found the surface she likes, which makes her a better horse, but at the same time she's just becoming a better horse.
"She knows where the wire is, she knows when she's in, she's just a pro. Why (her previous owners) ever put her in for $4,000 is beyond me, but I'm happy."
A native of Hershey, Pa., Caruso began going to the races with his father "since I could walk" and decided to open his own stable after working for a few seasons as an assistant to Penn National-based conditioner Brandon Kulp.
While hardships and dues-paying are on the docket for any aspiring trainer, Caruso made his path a lot smoother when he claimed the 5-year-old daughter of Pure Prize for $4,000 on behalf of owner Tuozzo Racing at Penn National on Jan. 10.
Though her previous owners claimed Purely Hot back for $8,000 in February, Caruso landed her again for $10,000 the following month and put an end to her time of being up for grabs.
"I thought I was getting a nice polytrack horse maybe," Caruso said of his decisions to claim Purely Hot. "They weren't so easy on her the year before so she was worth a shot. At the least, the stake we did win, I thought we could compete in it if she was as good as we thought.
"It was stupid for us to put her in for $8,000 and after that, no more claiming prices."
Caruso has four horses at Keeneland but had as many as 12 while at Presque Isle in Erie, Pa., due in no small part to his handling of Purely Hot.
Groupie Doll won last year's Thoroughbred Club of America by 61/2 lengths en route to her win in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Still, there are a couple advantages Caruso thinks might help Purely Hot's upset cause.
The 6-furlong distance of the TCA is more within Purely Hot's range. And where she carried 3 pounds more than Groupie Doll in their last meeting, she should be on the receiving end of the weight this time around.
"It's one of those things where I'm a Groupie Doll fan and if I ran second or even third to her again, I'd be plum tickled happy," Caruso said. "But I'm a lot more comfortable going into this one."
Though a win on Saturday would automatically qualify Purely Hot for a start in this year's Filly & Mare Sprint, Caruso said running at that level on dirt might be over his mare's head.
That Caruso is already receiving calls from Breeders' Cup representatives is blowing his mind.
"The Breeders' Cup guy called me, which was an awesome phone call just because I never dreamed of that," Caruso said. "She's not on Groupie Doll's level on the dirt or even close so I probably wouldn't go. But I'd like to be in the situation where I had to decide that."
Keeneland Fall Meet
When: Friday through Oct. 26 (No racing on Mondays and Tuesdays)
First post each day: 1:05 p.m.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.