“It felt good,” Duco said of finally getting a chance to run Empire Builder, the two-length winner of the Naked Greed, on grass. “I always thought he was going to be twice as good on turf.”
Each time, rain washed those races to the main track, with Empire Builder finishing sixth in the Calder Derby and second in a second-level allowance before winning the off-the-turf running of the Mambo Meister Stakes. The colt was scratched from the Mecke Stakes on June 23.
“You could see when he breezed on the dirt in the morning that he could run on that surface,” Duco said. “But as he matured, I always knew turf is where he would be at his best. And that’s what I kept pointing for.”
Duco’s continued belief that Empire Builder would flourish on the grass, a belief that was validated Saturday, dated back not only to the colt’s two wins over the Calder turf course in 2011, but to a pair of stakes run at the Gulfstream Park meet where the colt ran competitively with some of the better grass horses of his generation, finishing sixth, beaten just 2 ½ lengths, in the Dania Beach Stakes before returning to finish third in the Kitten’s Joy.
“I thought those were very good races he ran,” Duco said. “And those races showed to me that he could compete with most horses on the turf.”
Saturday’s winning performance in the Naked Greed would seem to have proven at least part of that assessment to be true.
While Duco was trying to get Empire Builder on the turf, trainer Stanley Gold was merely trying to piece back together the seemingly broken career of Awesome Belle, the winner of the $300,000 My Dear Girl Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes last year, but a filly that suffered repeated defeats early in her sophomore season, including uninspiring performances on turf in the Sweetest Chant and the Calder Oaks.
“All the time we really wanted to get her back to two-turn races, and that plan worked perfectly in her last,” Gold said of Awesome Belle’s return to the winner’s circle following her July 21 Three Ring Stakes victory, which halted a nine-race losing streak. “But she has turf in her pedigree, and I always wanted to give her another chance to run on the grass. I thought she would be good on that surface too.”
Out of the mare Bayou Plans, Awesome Belle’s familial line includes her half-sister Bayou’s Lassie, a three-time turf-stake winner at Calder and a three-time grades stakes winner during her three-year racing career.
“If you remember when I was running her (Bayou’s Lassie) here, she was winning races like the (Grade 3) Frances Genter, where she beat some good horses,” Gold said. “Then she went north and won stakes up there, including the graded one (Grade 3 Distaff Turf Mile) at Churchill on Derby Day (in 2008).
“And it wasn’t only her. She had a brother that sold for $1.6 million and ran exclusively overseas in nothing but turf races.”
That horse was a colt named Al Zir, trained for Godolphin by Saeed bin Suroor to a third-place finish in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy Stakes in 2009 before returning to contest the prestigious Epsom Derby in 2010, where he finished sixth of 12.
With that pedigree in her corner, Gold felt confident as he sent out Awesome Belle to her 2 ½-length Crystal Rail win where she led throughout. Still, the conditioner remains cautions before making any proclamations as to what lies beyond the horizon for the filly.
“I think this (win) proves that on that day she was a good turf horse,” Gold said. “We will see what’s next.”
The next local options for both Empire Builder and Awesome Belle come up on the September 15 Festival
Preview card when the $75,000 Needles Stakes for 3-year-olds will be run at 1 1/16 miles on the grass and the $75,000 Judy’s Red Shoes, restricted to 3-year-old fillies, will be held at that same grassy distance.