When Barry Irwin saw Summer Soiree in the Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway on March 26, the CEO of Team Valor International was so awed, he immediately began plotting the purchase of the daughter of War Front.
Shortly after Irwin bought the bay filly from Brereton Jones following her 103/4-length win that day, he was given a heads-up by her former trainer Larry Jones.
"When we bought her, Larry told us, as good as she is on synthetic and dirt he thought she'd be that much better on turf and to try and get her on the grass as quickly as we can," Irwin said. "I saw him a couple days after she won at Monmouth the first time on the turf and I said, 'Man, you sure were right on that.' "
Since switching to the grass following her 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks, Summer Soiree has won a pair of graded stakes, including her first Grade I score in the Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 20.
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On Saturday, the 3-year-old's devastating speed and newfound love of the turf will get their toughest test yet when she faces fellow Grade I winner Winter Memories and six others in the Grade I, $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup going 11⁄8 miles on the turf at Keeneland.
In her two starts on grass, Summer Soiree has built on the foundation she established in nine outings on dirt and synthetic surfaces.
In the 11⁄16-mile Grade III Boiling Springs Stakes at Monmouth on June 25, Summer Soiree used her front-running speed to post an 81/2-length triumph — her third dominating victory in a season that has included four wins (in five starts) by a combined 291/2 lengths.
Though the 11⁄8 miles of the Del Mar Oaks stretched the limits of her stamina, Summer Soiree relaxed just off the early leader and won by a half length.
Whether her speed will hold up over the Keeneland course remains to be seen.
"I think in real life, she's a miler. But ... I think any 3-year-old that is really any good can get a mile and an eighth," Irwin said. "She relaxes fine but she kind of wants to go. She has a high cruising speed and she's got that ability to just all of the sudden kick it in."
Summer Soiree will have a new rider Saturday with Ramon Dominguez taking over for Gabriel Saez, who had ridden the filly in all 11 of her starts.
"It was just a personal decision," said trainer Graham Motion, who took over Summer Soiree when Team Valor bought her. "Ramon's somebody I've got a tremendous amount of confidence in, and she is not a very easy filly to ride."
Winter Memories' late runs have rivaled Summer Soiree's speed. The daughter of El Prado made a Houdini-like escape from what looked to be sure defeat in the Grade I Garden City at Belmont on Sept. 17, rallying from last in the stretch through a wall of horses to win for the sixth time in eight career outings.
"I'm not really looking forward to running against Winter Memories," Irwin said. "I think she's a phenomenal filly. That last race of hers was something ... You can't look any better than that.
"... We're taking a shot. But I can't really tell you that I'm going into the race thinking we're going to be able to beat her."