For two years running the $750,000 Cotillion Stakes at Parx racetrack in early October has been a springboard to the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. Last year’s thriller featured Havre de Grace who held off the favorite Blind Luck by a neck and took home Pennsylvania’s richest purse for fillies.
The 2011 edition appears to have provided a serious contender for the $3 Million Ladies Classic to be run under the lights at Churchill Downs on November 4.
Plum Pretty broke sharply out of the gate, grabbed the lead and never looked back en route to a 7 1/2-length victory in the Cotillion. The much anticipated rematch between Grade-1 winners Plum Pretty and It’s Tricky turned out to be no match at all.
Chester County-bred Plum Pretty was making her first start in her home state. Born at Mark Reid's Walnut Green Farm, the filly’s mother Liszy is partially owned by former University of Pennsylvania basketball player Vince Curran. Plum Pretty arrived from California for the race.
It’s Tricky was sent off as a slight 6-5 favorite, Plum Pretty at 3-2. With Rafael Bejarano in the irons Plum Pretty opened major daylight on the far turn and powered down the stretch. It’s Tricky and four other rivals could only watch as Plum Pretty pulled away well in hand as she hit the wire.
A 3-year old daughter of Medaglia d'Oro, her winning time of 1:41.19 for 1 1/16 miles on a fast main track established a stakes record and was only a tick off the track record. A bunch of top-notch fillies have competed in the race over the years, so there is real merit in her winning time.
The Bob Baffert-trained bay returned to the winner's circle for the first time since taking the Kentucky Oaks (Grade-1) in early May. Owned by John Fort’s Peachtree Stable, Plum Pretty joined the millionaire's club with the winner's share from the Cotillion, now boasting $1,296,700 in earnings to go along with her 9-4-2-2 career mark.
In addition to the Kentucky Oaks, Plum Pretty also romped by 25 lengths in the Sunland Park Oaks. She was runner-up in two Grade-1 races this season-- the Coaching Club American Oaks and Las Virgenes-- as well as a pair of Grade-2 contests, the Hollywood Oaks and Santa Ynez.
Learning the Game
John Fort was introduced to thoroughbred horse racing at an early age at the old fairgrounds training center near his home in Columbia, South Carolina. A former top-ranked polo player, Fort started a farm in South Carolina devoted to breeding and training racehorses in 1976. Twenty years ago he moved his operation to Atlanta and adopted the name Peachtree Stable.
“I took what little knowledge I had with polo and put into racehorses,” Fort said. “That was the foundation of what I have today.” In recent years he has campaigned Grade-1 winner and world-record holder Red Giant, Kentucky Derby runner-up Invisible Ink, and in 2011 Grade-1 Foxwoods King’s Bishop contender Flashpoint.
He purchased Plum Pretty for $130,000 at the OBS March Selected Sale of Two-Year-Olds in Training. Plum Pretty is the fourth foal out of Liszy, who is a half sister to stakes winner and sire Gold Case.
Plum Pretty started off her 3-year old season with a bang winning the Sunland Park Oaks. She followed that up with a gutsy victory in the Kentucky Oaks where she fought off a late charge by St. John’s River’s, winning by a neck.
“I was confident going into the race,” Fort recalled. “Everyone loves their own horse, but everybody in the Baffert barn was all over her. She had that aura at Churchill Downs that we were all, hopefully, expecting to win.”
According to Baffert the filly was training like a monster coming into the Cotillion.
“When she was in Saratoga she had trouble getting over that track,” the trainer said. “When I got her back to California, all of a sudden she turned a corner again. She trained like she was before the Oaks. If she is training like that we’d probably go to the Ladies Classic. I can tell when she’s really on her game.”
Plum Pretty is the latest girl to grab the racing public’s attention. And, when the girls take on the boys, the buzz grows even louder. Across the globe the batch of man-eaters in recent years has included the likes of Zarkava, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Goldikova.
Over the past two seasons Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta bested the boys, earning the previous two “Horse of the Year” trophies in America. It’s looking more and more like a trend, rather than a fluke.
On the first Saturday in October Havre de Grace took another major step toward the $5 Million Breeders’ Cup Classic, knowing that “Horse of the Year” honors likely hang in the balance. On a muddy track at Belmont Park, Havre de Grace was still on cruise control entering the turn, and all jockey Ramon Dominguez had to do was shake the reins for his bay mount to take off. The daughter of Saint Liam effortlessly took over and pulled away under wraps to finish the nine-furlong, muddy event in 1:49 1/5.
"It was very easy, she was in control the whole time, and turning for home I made sure I had her running," said Dominguez. "I got after her some, and when I took a peek back inside three-sixteenths she was in front by many, and she did it pretty easy.”
“She had plenty in reserve,” added trainer Larry Jones. “I was a little concerned and had never seen her run over this type of track, but she responded. I don’t think we had to ask for her best. She and I are still learning each other. I think we’re starting to get there.”
Havre de Grace came into Jones’ Delaware Park barn a year ago after spending her 2-year old season with Tony Dutrow.
“The first time I went over her, I went over her just like I would a yearling I was going to buy,” Jones recalled. “I had never seen one like her. She is some kind of animal. We’ve got her fit now, and we don’t have to put electrifying works in her. She’s dead fit.”
Owner Rick Porter’s powerful filly is a nose away from being undefeated in six starts in 2011. She won the Azeri (Grade-3) and Apple Blossom Invitational (Grade-1) at Oaklawn Park, and rolled in the Obeah (Grade-3) at Delaware Park. With the Beldame Havre de Grace bagged her third Grade-1 which came on the heels of her impressive score in the Grade-1 Woodward Stakes against colts at Saratoga on Sept. 3. In the Delaware Handicap (Grade-2) in mid-July, the bay filly was caught at the wire by Blind Luck in arguably the most thrilling race of the year.
"I keep trying to tell her that half the people in America who are watching horse racing are going to root for her” Jones insisted. “There will be some guys that even like her. She is going to have more than half the people rooting for her. I can't imagine any woman rooting for a boy racing against a girl."
Havre de Grace has finished first or second in 11 of 13 starts and has never finished out of the money. Her racing record improved to 8-4-2 from 14 starts with earnings of $2,196,175. Owner Porter and Jones say she will race in 2012 if she stays healthy.
“I seriously think this is the closest I’ve ever witnessed the perfect racehorse,” Jones stated flatly. “I thought Secretariat was that when he retired. If she has a flaw anywhere, anyhow, I haven’t found it.
“She performs on all occasions. Where some of them have so much heart and courage to do it, others have pure speed and class, she’s got it all. And when you hook her eyeball to eyeball, she just gets tougher.”
Two days after the Beldame, Havre de Grace shipped to Keeneland and will train over the Polytrack surface prior to battling the boys in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic.
"I have all the confidence in the world in the horse, Ramon and Larry Jones,” Porter related. “As long as she’s training in top form and we think we have a big chance of winning, we will be in the Classic.
“I’m sure we will see Uncle Mo in there. He ran freakishly well in the Kelso Stakes (Oct. 2). It should make it very interesting.”
Jones believes “Horse of the Year” should be determined on the racetrack, not based on some poll.
“If she wins the Classic, then definitely it's a no-brainer that she is Horse of the Year. But I don't think for us to still be considered for Horse of the Year we necessarily have to win the Classic. But we have to show up and run big."
Breeders’ Cup Notes
The most impressive colt from the region is Chadds Ford Stable’s 2-year old Union Rags. Undefeated (3-for-3) Union Rags ran away with victories in the Saratoga Special and the Champagne at Belmont this fall. In the Champagne he was bottled up on the far turn, then again in the stretch behind a wall of horses until he was sent outside for a clear run. He exploded in the final 200 yards, winning by five lengths. Trainer Michael Matz has drawn early comparisons to Barbaro. The next stop is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. A homebred, Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Wyeth who is married to celebrated artist Jamie Wyeth.
Larry Jones also saddled the two-year-old filly Believe You Can, the winner of the Tempted (Grade-3) at Belmont on Oct.2. She is headed to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly.
The Tony Dutrow trainee Grace Hall (2-for-2) triumphed in the $250,000 Spinaway Stakes (Grade-1) stalking the leaders into the stretch and sweeping past the favorite to handily win at Saratoga.
Making only his second ever start in the U.S., the New Zealand-bred gelding Hoofit captured the $175,000 Phoenix (Grade-3) at Keeneland on Oct. 7. Trained by Fair Hill’s Graham Motion, Hoofit punched his ticket to Breeders' Cup Sprint.