ARLINGTON HEIGHTS -- The Arlington Park stakes season got underway this afternoon with three Grade III events, two on the polytrack and one on the turf. The sun was out, the turf was rated good, and the track had a healthy contingent of racing fans ready to watch the first stakes action of the 2014 racing season.
ARLINGTON MATRON: La Tia In Complete Control
The first stakes race of the Arlington season featured La Tia as the strong favourite. The $150,000 Arlington Matron (GIII) is raced at 1 1/8 miles over the polytrack, and restricted to fillies and mares three years old and up. Eight fillies and mares entered the race. Illinois-bred La Tia was the strong betting favourite leading up to post time, bouncing in the 6/5-8/5 range. Her odds settled at 8/5 come post time. Second favourite was close throughout between Frivolous and Moment in Dixie, with the latter ending up the slight second choice. The post was delayed several minutes when Naples Gold threw a shoe and had to be reshod in the paddock. That happened without issue, however, and the jockeys re-mounted to load the gate.
La Tia broke well, and settled in front along the rail. Awesome Flower settled in about a length behind, chasing the pace, with Frivolous and Naples Gold behind her. La Tia set honest though not blazing early fractions: a quarter in 24.14, the half in 48.07. The shape on the front end stayed the same way until the far turn, when longshot Naples Gold dropped out of it. Around the 3/8 pole La Tia found another gear, reasserting her control of the race. A lead that was one length was quickly a widening three. It was quickly clear that Awesome Flower and Frivolous were quickly fighting it out for second. They had a challenger in 28-1 shot Ambusher, who made a run from midpack late, but none of them mounted any credible run for the win. La Tia crossed the wire 6 1/4 lengths in front, with Frivolous pushing ahead in the final sixteenth to claim second. Awesome Flower was third, a neck back, with Ambusher a head farther back in fourth.
The Arlington Matron win was La Tia's first stakes win since last June's Lincoln Heritage Handicap at Arlington, and her first graded win since 2012's Arlington Oaks. The five-year-old mare by City Place came into this race just two weeks off a second-place finish in an allowance over the suburban oval, something that initially caused a bit of concern with trainer Armando de Cerda. "Last time out she ran very fast, so I was a little worried," said de Cerda. "She ran a mile and a sixteenth last time to get her ready to run a mile and an eighth. She came out of that race good and was happy, so I said, 'Let's run her.'"
Jockey E.T. Baird, who rode La Tia for the first time today, was prepared for his mission in the Matron. "Armando (de la Cerda) told me she was a kind filly and that she would prett ymuch do what I wanted her to do. He was exactly right." Baird described it as "a pretty good feeling" when La Tia found that higher gear as the field turned for home.
The jockeys on the second- and third-place finishers both acknowledged that La Tia ran a very strong race. James Graham, who rode second-place Frivolous, remarked that he was "Outrun. No excuse. I had her in the right spot but couldn't quicken with the winner late." Florent Geroux, who was aboard third-place Awesome Flower, remarked that "The winner was just too good. If you pressure her earlier and go faster, you wind up dying. Tough beat."
La Tia returned $5.20 to win. The $2 exacta with La Tia over Frivolous paid $19,80. The $0.50 trifecta with Awesome Flower on the bottom rung paid $39.55. The dime superfecta, adding Ambusher in the fourth position, paid $40.78 for each ten cents bet.
HANSHIN CUP: Nikki's Sandcastle Shows His Grit
This year marked the 62nd running of the $150,000 Hanshin Cup Stakes (GIII), and its twentieth year as an exchange race with the Japan Racing Association. The race is a one-turn mile over the polytrack, and open to horses three years old and up. A full field of fourteen drew into the race, although Occasional View scratched out the morning of the race in order go to Woodbine next weekend instead. The champions from the last two years, Havelock (2012) and Hogy (2013) were both in the field, and the latter was the strong betting favourite. Opening at 9/5, his odds plummeted all the way down to 6/5 by post time. Pass The Dice and Nikki's Sandcastle both opened at 5/1, and were the only horses other than Hogy to go off at single digit odds: Pass The Dice at 5-1, and Nikki's Sandcastle at 7/1.
A few of the longer shots in the field bolted to the front early. Speedball Mongolian Saturday set snappy early fractions of 23.07 for the quarter, and 45.81 for the half. Tulira Castle, whose head was briefly in front early, stalked about half a length off for the first half-mile; Valentino Beauty, Hogy, and Pass The Dice settled in the next flight. Approaching the far turn, Francois had advanced from his position farther back, and joined Valentino Beauty and Hogy in making a run at the lead. Among those three, it was Valentino Beauty who was able to sustain the best run; he got his head in front of Mongolian Saturday in shallow stretch, as the closers gave chase. He did not hold his lead for very long. After a still-honest 3/4 mile time of 1:10.30, a wall of horses came charging from the middle and back of the pack to take him on.
Among the members of that late cavalry charge, Nikki's Sandcastle finished best of all. The David Kassen trainee was midpack early, though closer to the front than he has been in many of this races. He steadily closed up distance between him and the lead through the far turn, coming into the stretch on the outside and only about two lengths off the lead. Pass The Dice, just inside of him, bumped him a bit coming in, but it didn't stop Nikki's Sandcastle from making a run. In the final furlong, he edged clear of Pass The Dice, and rebuffed a late run from Mister Marti Gras on his outside. Mister Marti Gras, who finished second in the Hanshin Cup last year, was second again this year -- just half a length behind Nikki's Sandcastle. Pass The Dice, who had come between horses to challenge for the lead earlier in the stretch, did not get all the way there; he finished third, a length behind the victor. Joha, who had been a distant last early, charged between horses and got within a length and a half of Nikki's Sandcastle, good enough for fourth place.
The 2014 Hanshin Cup was Nikki's Sandcastle's his first victory since the Hagyard Fayette Stakes (GII) at Keeneland, which he won last October, and it was his first win at Arlington since the Sea O Erin Stakes in June of 2012. The seven-year-old Castledale gelding has pushed his career tally to ten wins in forty starts, including two graded wins. Jockey Leandro Goncalves, who rode him in a race for the third time in his career, explained the ride, "We changed a bit to break to get him closer and not take him far back where he's been and always gets in trouble. I just wanted to make sure he got a good trip because I knew he'd show up."
The outside run of second-place Mister Marti Gras was deliberate, according to trainer Chris Block. "He came off the turn pretty wide, but you can't get him stopped," Block noted. "You have to keep him in the clear." This race is just the beginning of a midwestern summer stakes schedule for the seven-year-old gelding. "We'll look around to places like Canterbury, but ultimately aim to the Washington Park. I think he's better on Poly and dirt than on the turf, but if the Arlington Handicap comes up lighter, we would consider [it]." The Washington Park Handicap (GIII) is on August 30, at 1 1/8 miles over the Arlington polytrack.
Betting favourite Hogy, who had tried to make a run coming into the far turn, could not sustain it. He finished twelfth beaten 12 1/4 lengths. According to jockey Christopher Emigh, Hogy lost his tongue tie going to the gate. Furthermore, Emigh noted that during the race "he got into a pinch where he was trapped between horses on the outside, he doesn't like that. He likes to have a clear run on the outside. He got squeezed out there, I had to check a little and it was all over."
Nikki's Sandcastle paid his backers $12.20 for each $2 win bet. The $2 exacta with him and Mister Marti Gras paid $168.00. The $0.50 trifecta with Pass The Dice below them returned $271.45. A $0.10 superfecta bet with Joha on the end returned $427.86 for each dime bet on the combination.
ARLINGTON CLASSIC: Filly Istanford Wires The Boys
The $150,000 (GIII) Arlington Classic is the first leg of the Mid-America Triple, which features the Arlington Classic (GIII), the American Derby (GIII), and the Secretariat Stakes (GI). All three races are turf races restricted to three-year-olds. The Arlington Classic, the shortest of the races, is run at 1 1/16 miles. Eight three-year-olds headed to the post: seven males, and the filly Istanford, who took on open company for the first time in her eight-race career. Even though Solitary Ranger had been installed as the 3/1 morning line favourite, Illinois-bred Afortable (5/1 ML) took the lion's share of the money. He went off the 8/5 betting favourite, with Long On Value, Solitary Ranger, and Istanford all going off between 4/1 and 5/1.
Istanford and Solitary Ranger were the speed horses of the field, and it looked at the break that both of them were going to want the lead. Solitary Ranger settled back, however, allowing Istanford to get ahead and settle a length and a half along the rail as the field entered the clubhouse turn. Long On Value and Chief Barker chased another few lengths back. Istanford set comfortable early fractions: 24.85 for the quarter, 49.21 for the half. No one challenged her down the backstretch. Coming through the far turn, Long On Value moved outside of Solitary Ranger, and tried to get at Istanford. He did pass the tiring Solitary Ranger, but couldn't close the entire gap with the leader. Istanford had more than enough run left after controlling the pace, and crossed the wire a length in front of Long On Value. Favourite Afortable, unhurried early, did fire and make a belated run. However, with so little pace to close into, he could finish no closer than 1 3/4 lengths back: good enough for third. Chief Barker, who chased the pace from about five lengths back for most of the race, closed up a bit of ground down the stretch. His run also fell short, and he finished fourth beaten 2 1/4 lengths.
With this, Istanford secured her first career stakes win. The sophomore daughter of Istan had finished second twice in stakes races for fillies at this same distance over turf: 3 1/2 lengths behind Testa Rossi in the Florida Oaks (GIII) at Tampa Bay Downs in March, and 1 1/4 lengths behind A Little Bit Sassy in the listed Edgewood Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard at Churchill Downs. Jockey James Graham, who piloted her to victory today, had also ridden Istanford to her maiden win over the Arlington turf at a mile last year. With respect to the ride, he noted after the race, "I've wanted to ride her all along but sometimes I couldn't get off another horse I was supposed to ride. We were going to lay off if he [Solitary Ranger] wante the lead, but evidently he didn't. So she just bounced around here happy as can be, and came on home."
Mike Stidham, who trains Istanford, turned to the Arlington Classic for lack of filly races that fit her. "We didn't have a lot of options for a filly race so we thought, let's just keep her here and run out of her own stall. I've run in this race a few times and I feel it's the easiest of the three races [of the Mid-America Triple]. Our filly had been running good and had been beat by some pretty good fillies in her last two losses [the Ashland Stakes (GI) and the Edgewood (listed)]. We felt fairly confident that we had a chance in the race."
Julian Leparoux, jockey on the favourite Afortable, cited the pace as a reason why his horse did not get all the way up to win. "They didn't really back up at the end. He made his run at the end, but there wasn't a lot of pace. He ran big."
Istanford paid $12.20 to win. The exacta with her over Long On Value paid $49.80 for a $2 bet. A $0.50 trifecta with Afortable slotted third returned $39.55. A $0.10 superfecta with Chief Barker in the lowest rung returned $40.78 for each dime bet.
All photos are courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.
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