On a humid and (at times) rainy day at Arlington Park, Illinois-bred older grass horses took centre stage for a pair of 1 1/16 mile stakes races. The Mike Spellman Memorial Handicap, named after the late turf writer for the Daily Herald, featured a field of six fillies and mares, including graded stakes performers LOVELY LOYREE and PRADO'S SWEET RIDE. The open-company complement, the Black Tie Affair Handicap, was the long-awaited eight-year-old debut of multiple Grade 1 winner THE PIZZA MAN -- but he had four other foes to face, and they would not let him have it easy.
One race saw a well-backed victor. In the other, a longshot prevailed. But, in both, speed held over the rain-soaked grass.
Mike Spellman Memorial Handicap: LOVELY LOYREE Sharp off the Layoff
A year ago, coming off a multiple graded stakes placed campaign in Tampa Bay, LOVELY LOYREE was defeated at 2/5. She did one better the next month, gamely holding off Cash Control in the Indiana General Assembly Distaff, but that race marked the end of her 2016 campaign. After an extended break, LOVELY LOYREE launched her 2017 campaign back home against Illinois-breds, in her second attempt to win the Mike Spellman.
After the stewards' scratch of ROYALTY PRINCESS, she faced five other foes. Those foes included the horse who defeated her last year, STORMIN ELLE, as well as a horse coming in off a stakes-winning Fair Grounds campaign over the winter and spring, PRADO'S SWEET RIDE. It was PRADO'S SWEET RIDE who took most of the bettors' attention, leaving the gate at 1/1, with LOVELY LOYREE the 3/2 second choice.
Despite breaking slightly outward and hitting the gate, LOVELY LOYREE quickly found the front. Under a driving rain, she carved out fractions of 26.39 for the quarter and 52.81 for the half, comfortably ahead of STORMIN ELLE AND PRADO'S SWEET RIDE. LOVELY LOYREE led the procession into the far turn, as neither of her closest pursuers could gain ground on her. Only AMERICA MON AMIE, well off the early going, looked a threat. She gained touch with the front of the pack as the field traversed the far turn, and bore down on the leader as the field came down the stretch.
Pushed along by jockey Jose Valdivia, Jr., LOVELY LOYREE had more to give. She held her challenger at bay, and crossed the wire two and a quarter lengths clear. AMERICA MON AMIE came home another two and a quarter lengths clear of PRADO'S SWEET RIDE, an even third. STORMIN ELLE flattened out to fourth, another length and a half back. SMILING GAMBLER and IMA LITTLE KITTEN completed the order off finish.
LOVELY LOYREE stopped the timer in 1:49.13 for a mile and a sixteenth on turf rated yielding, and paid $5.00 to win. The exacta with AMERICA MON AMIE below (5-3) came back with $16.90 for each $1 wagered. The $0.50 trifecta with PRADO'S SWEET RIDE third (5-3-2) returned $18.40. A dime superfecta with STORMIN ELLE fourth (5-3-2-4) paid $6.59.
LOVELY LOYREE is a six-year-old bay daughter of Cactus Ridge out of stakes-placed Illinois-bred mare Lil Cora Tee (Lil E. Tee). Bred in Illinois by Barr Three LLC, she is owned by Feel the Thunder Stable, Oak Rock Racing, LLC, Michael Bojarski, Terry Biondo, et. al. and trained by Michele Boyce. LOVELY LOYREE, 2014's champion Illinois-bred three-year-old filly on the strength of a multiple stakes-placed year, has now won in stakes company at ages four, five, and six. The victory was her seventh in 18 starts, and the $31,660 winner's share of the purse brought her career earnings up to $290,106.
Jockey Jose Valdivia, Jr. praised LOVELY LOYREE's readiness off the eleven-month layoff. “Hats off to Michele Boyce," he proclaimed after the race. "I was just the lucky recipient of riding a really good mare. Unbelievable, almost a year layoff to run over this kind of ground that is very demanding; of course being on the lead and setting all the fractions helped, but nevertheless it depends on their handling, and she had enough to hold them off. When I turned for home I smacked her once on the left and she took off, it was unbelievable. She was ready for the race.”
Black Tie Affair Handicap: OAK BROOK Turns Back All Foes, THE PIZZA MAN Fourth
Heading into the Black Tie Affair Handicap, THE PIZZA MAN took most of the attention. The eight-year-old gelding, a multiple Grade 1 winner, had taken an extended winter break and was coming back home to make the first start of his season. All eyes fell on him, and at 9/10, much of the money did as well.
By the time the horses crossed the wire, however, echoes of another Illinois-bred multiple Grade 1 winner whispered through the air. No, OAK BROOK has not yet competed in a Grade 1, much less won one. However, he is a full brother to Giant Oak, winner of both the 2010 Clark Handicap and the 2011 Donn Handicap. Though they share breeding, their running styles differ. Giant Oak always preferred to rally from well off the early going. OAK BROOK, however, has a bit more early zip -- a positive, given the ground. The rain had cleared by the time the five colts and geldings lined up for the Black Tie Affair, but the turf remained sodden -- "European soft", as described by Jose Valdivia, Jr., who rode at last year's rainy Royal Ascot meet and had the call on THE PIZZA MAN today.
OAK BROOK came out of the gate well, and despite breaking from the second outermost post in the field of five, quickly cleared and assumed the rail. He opened up a few lengths of daylight between him and the chasing SUPER SOLDIER, carving out fractions of 25.44 for the quarter and 51.47 for the half. Coming into the far turn, SUPER SOLDIER made first run on the leader. He ranged up to OAK BROOK's outside, getting first run. CAMMACK rallied behind them, inside, as THE PIZZA MAN began to make up ground from further back.
Approaching the turn for home, SUPER SOLDIER drew on even terms. OAK BROOK had more. Rider Santo Sanjur asked him; he answered. He spurted clear of SUPER SOLDIER -- just in time to face a new foe In the final furlong, CAMMACK drew even along the rail. OAK BROOK refused to lose. He turned back last year's Black Tie Affair winner, edged on, and crossed the wire three quarters of a length ahead of CAMMACK. It was another three quarters of a length back to SUPER SOLDIER, still chasing on the outside. THE PIZZA MAN ran on strongly late, but missed the show by half a length. ALWAYS A CATCH trailed in to complete the finish order. EMPIRESTRIKESAGAIN was a stewards' scratch.
OAK BROOK crossed the wire in 1:47.87 for a mile and a sixteenth over turf rated yielding, and paid his few but loyal backers $34.20 to win. The $1 exacta with CAMMACK in second (4-1) returned $47.10. A trifecta with SUPER SOLDIER third (4-1-2-3) came back with $69.90. The dime superfecta with THE PIZZA MAN in the lowest rung paid $11.24.
OAK BROOK is a five-year-old bay gelding by Giant's Causeway out of the Crafty Prospector mare Crafty Oak. A homebred for the Virginia H. Tarra Trust, he is trained by Brian Williamson, and was ridden by Santo Sanjur. His victory in the Black Tie Affair Handicap improved his career record to four wins in 19 career starts, and made OAK BROOK the third stakes winner out of his dam, in addition to full brother Giant Oak and full sister Apple Martini. The $31,710 winner's share of the purse brought his career earnings up to $215,729.
Trainer Brian Williamson knew OAK BROOK's front-end abilities well, and that shined through with the riding directions he gave to Santo Sanjur. "I followed instructions to the T," recalled Sanjur, "and my horse kicked away in the stretch. I was worried about THE PIZZA MAN, like everyone in the field, but my horse did very [well]."
Jose Valdivia, Jr., who rode the beaten favourite, identified a multitude of reasons his horse did not find the wire first. "Pick your poison, 128, heavy ground at too short of a distance," Valdivia remarked. Even so, he praised the effort his mount put forth off the seven-month layoff. "Hats off to him because at the wire he was earnest. If this race would have been a mile and a quarter, even with everything, he gets there."
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