Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains the daughter of Mineshaft for Godolphin Stable, watched with keen interest this past weekend as Awesome Maria and champion Royal Delta made their first appearances of 2012 in the Sabin at Gulfstream Park. He knows Horse of the Year Havre de Grace is working toward her debut as well. Contention runs deep in the older filly and mare division, and McLaughlin hopes the Top Flight is It’s Tricky’s launching pad for a big year.
Asked if It’s Tricky could possibly improve this year, after scoring two Grade 1 victories, in the TVG Acorn and TVG Coaching Club American Oaks, and finishing second behind Royal Delta in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic as a 3-year-old, McLaughlin said, “I’m going to be honest, I don’t have that answer. I hope she maintains that Grade 1 status. She won two last year, and it’s hard to maintain that. We expect her to be in the top five in her class. Hopefully, it works out well for us.”
It’s Tricky, the 1-4 morning-line favorite for the Top Flight who will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez, will leave from post position 5 and will five other runners, including a coupled entry.
Like McLaughlin, trainer Mark Casse also will send out a filly who spent the winter at Palm Meadows Training Center. His 4-year-old Delightful Mary, a daughter of Limehouse, however, has had the benefit of two starts this year, a victory in a restricted stakes race January 8 at Gulfstream Park and then a strong second-place finish behind the undefeated champion Awesome Feather in the Sunshine Millions Distaff on January 28.
In that race, Delightful Mary made a bid to catch Awesome Feather at the quarter pole but simply was no match.
“She kind of made a big move and looked like she would be there,” Casse said. “[Jockey] Luis [Contreras] decided to go inside and at the top of the lane lost his momentum for a second and then angled back out and it cost him a length or two, but I don’t think it cost him the race. The thing I thought was encouraging about the race is she could have given up and finished third. I was happy she won that battle. We had some questions whether she could go that far (1 1/8 miles).”
Asked about cutting Delightful Mary back a sixteenth of a mile for the Top Flight, Casse said, “That’s not going to hurt her feelings.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher enters committed front-runner Love and Pride, the recent seven-length winner of the Affectionately at Aqueduct. A granddaughter of the top filly Cara Rafaela, from the family of Bernardini, the 4-year-old Love and Pride has shown flashes of enormous talent but is yet to excel in a graded stakes race.
“With this filly, any time she can be controlling speed is to her benefit,” said Pletcher’s assistant Michael McCarthy. “Pace scenario is big for her; if she can get away with 47 and change or 48 and change, it’s good for her.
“You go back to the [past performances] and she’s given us a taste that she can step it up to the next level. She’s won a few races off layoffs and she’s done it in spectacular fashion. Then she’s tried to take the next step and hasn’t been able to do it. She’s doing as good as she’s ever done, and it’s time to put up or shut up. She’s brought her ‘A’ game a few times, and in the better races like this she just has never put it all together.”
Love and Pride, who will be ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, likely will face pace pressure from Coco Ecolo, part of an entry along with Sleepless Dixie for trainer Kelly Breen. Coco Ecolo has run in three allowance races this winter on the Aqueduct inner dirt course and made the pace in each start. In fact, she has been on the lead at the half-mile mark in seven of her past 10 starts.
Sleepless Dixie, like Coco Ecolo owned by George and Lori Hall, enters the Top Flight off a fifth-place finish in an optional claiming race Feb. 9 at Gulfstream Park.
Rounding out the field is Bahama Bound, a 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker trained by Anthony Dutrow.
Fourth two years ago in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, Bahama Bound has thrived recently at Aqueduct, finishing second in the Ladies Handicap on New Year’s Day and third after steadying in the Affectionately.
Those recent races were with trainer Juan Carlos Guerrero before a private purchase by Farnsworth Stables.
“I don’t think we’re going to have much effect on the shape of the race,” said Dutrow of Bahama Bound, who tracks behind the pace. “It’s pretty obvious how she’ll run. I wouldn’t expect anything different than last time.”