The level of competition in Thursday's Grade III, $100,000 Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland was such that trainer Graham Motion wasn't going to judge Daring Dancer's success solely by whether or not she hit the finish line first.
Despite the challenge of making her first start in nearly six months, unbeaten Daring Dancer and her red-hot trainer proved too much for all foes in her 21/2-length win in the 1-mile turf test.
Motion wasn't at Keeneland, on Thursday and he had his brethren wishing he had kept his stock away from Lexington as well. From his Maryland base at Fair Hill, Motion watched as his horses won three races on the card with Daring Dancer delivering the exclamation point as she scored in her first try against graded stakes company in what was her first start since taking an allowance race on the Churchill Downs turf Oct. 27.
"I told (jockey) Alan (Garcia) that she was very fit but it was a tough race today," Motion said. "She wouldn't necessarily have to win to run a good race because it was such a competitive race coming back as a 3-year-old.
"We had her up here all winter and she's really been ready to run for a while. But it was exciting to see that kind of turn of foot, and what a super ride Alan gave her."
With the Appalachian victory, Motion is now in a three-way tie with Mark Casse and Wesley Ward for the lead in the trainer standings at Keeneland with six wins.
Owned by Kevin Plank's Sagamore Farm, Daring Dancer has shown a wicked turn of foot in each of her three starts, winning both her maiden and last October's allowance race by widening margins once she found daylight.
The script was much the same Thursday as the daughter of Empire Maker tracked along a ground-saving fifth through a half-mile in :47.61.
When the nine-horse field leveled off for the stretch run, Daring Dancer looked in trouble stuck behind pace-setter Lacarolina and Kitten Kaboodle. Garcia somehow got the bay filly to dive between those two and shoot up the rail as she hit the wire well clear of runner-up Sweet Acclaim in a final time of 1:36.04 over a course rated firm.
"We were waiting at the top of the stretch for a hole to open, and it did," Garcia said.
Race favorite Recepta was third, 31/2 lengths clear of Kitten Kaboodle.
With Sagamore Farm being based in Maryland, Motion said the Hilltop Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16 is a likely next target for his undefeated filly.
"I've been breezing her with an older mare at Fair Hill ... and she's been very much holding her own," Motion said. "We've been pretty excited about her but you never know until you run."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.