A day after the daughter of Hard Spun captured the Grade 1 TVG Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies by 4 ¼ lengths, McLaughlin recalled the decision to move her to the dirt after she opened the year with two straight dull turf starts. On June 24, in her first start on the main track at Belmont Park, she came home a 3 ¾-length winner in a one-mile optional claimer and earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure in the process.
In her allowance victory, Questing led every step, but in the 96th running of the Coaching Club, Questing allowed long shot Yara to race to a 3 ½-length advantage through the opening quarter-mile. Inside the five-eighths pole, jockey Irad Ortiz moved Questing to the leader but did not rouse her until the quarter pole. Questing shied away from left-handed whipping and ran out to the center of the track, but she was well clear.
“She looked great this morning and is happy,” McLaughlin said. “Obviously, we’ll look at the Alabama. It’s in four weeks. I wish it was a little more time, but if she’s doing this well …”
McLaughlin pointed out with pride that Ortiz joined Rajiv Maragh, Alan Garcia and Fernando Jara as jockeys who earned their first career Grade 1 victories riding for him.
It’s Tricky, winner last out of the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap on May 28 at Belmont Park, had an easy gallop Sunday at Greentree.
McLaughlin bypassed Saturday’s Delaware Handicap, opting to point to either the seven-furlong Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina on August 24 or the 1 1/8-mile Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign on August 26.
“She’s undefeated at one turn, and she’s kind of gotten speedier this year,” McLaughlin said of the 4-year-old It’s Tricky, who likely will have four works, spaced a week apart, leading up to her next race.
It’s Tricky won the Coaching Club last year for Darley, and McLaughlin clearly got a kick out of the back-to-back scores in such a prestigious race.
“They won’t have to paint the statue again,” he said, laughing, referring to the iconic jockey statues, painted in the colors of the previous year’s stakes winners, that surround the fountain at the track entrance.
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Trainer Tom Albertrani said Live Oak Plantation’s Zo Impressive came back well after her stretch run fell short in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. She likely will be heading to the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama on August 18.
After racing wide into the first turn and dropping back to last in the field of six after a half-mile, Zo Impressive rallied on the outside to chase Questing to no avail, while still finishing 2 ¼ lengths clear of third-place finisher In Lingerie, the favorite.
“The winner was impressive,” Albertrani said. “We just couldn’t get by. We’re very happy with our filly; she’s very consistent. She’s first or second in all [six of] her starts.”
Zo Impressive remains among the leaders of the 3-year-old filly division, having won the Grade 1 Mother Goose and finishing second to Contested in the Grade 1 Acorn, both this spring at Belmont Park.
“Right now, she’s done as much as any 3-year-old filly has accomplished,” Albertrani said.
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Jockey John Velazquez, sidelined since fracturing his collarbone in a June 16 spill at Churchill Downs, will return to the races Wednesday, July 25 at Saratoga Race Course with two scheduled mounts.
The 40-year-old native of Puerto Rico is named to ride Lucky Friend in race 5 and Stephanie’s Kitten in race 9, the Grade 2, $200,000 Lake George for 3-year-old fillies on the turf.
“I am really excited to get back to the races,” said Velazquez, set for induction into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame on August 10. “It’s been five weeks since I last raced, and that’s too long for me!”
Velazquez, who was Saratoga’s leading rider last year with 54 wins, is currently is second all-time among jockeys in wins at Saratoga with 655 from 4,015 starts, 38 behind Jerry Bailey’s 693 victories.
“I’m going to take it a little slow at the start, so it might be difficult to catch Jerry this year,” said Velazquez. “I’ll hopefully get some nice winners and setting the record will come whenever it comes.”
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Trainer Chad Brown confirmed Martin Schwartz’s Zagora for a title defense in the Grade 1 Diana, a 1 1/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares on July 28, after the 5-year-old mare breezed four furlongs on the Oklahoma training track in 49.93 on Sunday with exercise rider Walter Malasquez in the irons.
The 2011 Diana marked the first Grade 1 win for both Zagora and Mechanicville native Brown. Zagora has three Grade 3 wins in four 2012 starts, taking the Grade 3 Gallorette on May 19 at Pimlico in her most recent effort. Her lone loss was a fifth in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley in April at Keeneland.
“She came out of the Gallorette with a popped splint, and we freshened her for a couple of weeks to fix that,” said Brown. “She caught a slow pace [in the Jenny Wiley], and she’s 0-for-3 at Keeneland. It’s not her course. Otherwise, she’s been perfect this year.”
Schwartz’s Dealbata, who was nominated to the Diana after winning the Mohegan Sky overnight stakes on June 16 at Belmont Park in her North American debut, will await the restricted $100,000 De La Rose on August 4, Brown said.
Banimpire, fifth in the Grade 2 New York in her first start since being purchased by Schwartz for approximately $3.1 million at auction in Ireland last autumn, has gone to the sidelines with a throat abscess, Brown said.
“She’s at [Dr.] Scott Palmer’s clinic in New Jersey getting evaluated,” said Brown. “She has some sort of abscess in her throat that won’t pop. We’re treating it aggressively with antibiotics. I think it was developing going into the race and she didn’t have her air.”
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It was a busy Sunday morning for trainer Todd Pletcher, who had 15 horses on the work tab at Saratoga led by Grade 1 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial winner Gemologist, unraced since a 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
Going out just after the renovation break in company with Grade 2 winner Dominus, Gemologist breezed five furlongs in 58.40 on the main track, the fastest of 43 horses at the distance, as he preps for his first start following his first career loss on May 5.
“He worked super. It was a very impressive work,” Pletcher said of the WinStar colt. “He finished up great, galloped out well, and recovered quickly afterward. I think his conditioning is very, very good.
“I thought he breezed as well this morning as he’s ever breezed. He’s always been a good work horse, but he was exceptionally good this morning.”
It was the second straight bullet work for the Tiznow colt, who has been on the sidelines since a foot bruise was discovered two days after the Derby.
“He hasn’t run since the Derby, so we wanted to make sure we were tight,” Pletcher said. “He’s really had a very good, progressive work tab. Each one’s been progressively stronger.”
Gemologist, who won five straight to start his career, is being considered for both the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday, July 28, as well as the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park the following day.
“We haven’t decided yet,” Pletcher said. “It’s the same thing that goes into every racing decision; where you think you have the best chance to win. We are considering entering both spots, but we might make a decision prior to that.”
Also on the work tab for Pletcher was multiple graded stakes winner Rule, who was clocked in 48.11 for a half-mile on the main track, seventh-fastest of 67 at the distance.
Another WinStar color bearer, Rule is coming off a victory over Flat Out in the Grade 2 Monmouth Cup on July 7, his 5-year-old debut.
“He worked well,” Pletcher said. “He seems to have come out of the race in good order. We’re going to see how he does this week and breeze him back. Right now, I’d say he’s certainly a candidate for the Whitney [Grade 1, $750,000, August 4].”
Among other Pletcher workers on Sunday were Stopshoppingmaria, second in the Grade 1 Frizette and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2011, and Grade 3 winner Finale, who each went a half-mile in 50.00. The Curlin colt Palace Malice, second in his career bow at Belmont Park on July 5, clocked four furlongs in 48.11.
Pletcher reported that In Lingerie and Disposablepleasure, who ran third and fourth, respectively, in Saturday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, emerged from the race in good order.
“Both of them seem fine this morning,” he said. “We didn’t get much of a trip with either one of them. Both of them got away in a tangle and were last and next to last going into the first turn, and it seemed like speed was holding up pretty well. I think it was just one of those throwout races, and we’ll try again.”
Pletcher said In Lingerie, the beaten favorite, will be pointed to the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama on Saturday, August 18, while Disposablepleasure could come back in either the Alabama or the Grade 2, $200,000 Woodford Reserve Lake Placid on the turf on Sunday, August 19.
“We’ve been thinking about putting her back on the grass for a while now,” Pletcher said.
Turbulent Descent, winner of the Grade 1 Test in 2011, worked a half-mile on Saturday in 49.05 and is being pointed to the Grade 1 Ballerina on August 24, Pletcher said.
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With jockey John Velazquez aboard, Ever So Lucky breezed five furlongs on the main track this morning in 59.38 seconds in preparation for Friday’s $100,000 Curlin, which will be his second start off a three-month layoff following a 10th place finish in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes.
“Johnny seemed pleased with him,” said Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard, who trains the Indian Charlie colt for George Strawbridge’s Augustin Stable. “It was a chance for them to get acquainted. He was pleased with the way things went.”
Purchased for $600,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic 2-year-olds in training sale last May, Ever So Lucky broke his maiden impressively at Churchill Downs and next finished second to Gemologist in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Cup in November. Over the winter in Florida, Ever So Lucky had a series of setbacks while on the Triple Crown trail. He was scratched from the Hutcheson following a less-than-stellar breeze and missing a workout due to a bruised left hind foot in mid-February. Third in the Grade 3 Swale in his 3-year-old debut, he was never a factor in Blue Grass, finishing 17 ¼ lengths behind Dullahan over the synthetic surface.
“I’ve never really been able to put my finger on that,” said Sheppard. “He’s been training on the synthetic extremely well, and he’s always been able to handle different surfaces well, so it’s hard to think it could have been just that. He didn’t get a good break. He was way out in the back, in traffic, wide, checking … it wasn’t real pretty.”
Given a break following the Blue Grass, Ever So Lucky returned to the races in July, scoring an easy 7 ½-length victory in a one-mile optional claimer at Delaware Park.
“It was great,” said Sheppard. “He wasn’t beating much, to be honest. But he did everything beautifully. A friend of his owner called me 20 minutes after the race. She said, ‘George is driving and I’ve been looking through the condition book and I’ve picked out a nice race for the horse.’ I said ‘Oh?’ She said, “It’s at Saratoga. It’s called the Jim Dandy, and it’s $600,000.’ And I said, ‘No. Let’s go up the ladder one step at a time.’”
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Neck ‘n Neck, who scored his first stakes victory in the Grade 3 Matt Winn at Churchill Downs on June 16, will breeze tomorrow morning after the break in preparation for Saturday’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy, said trainer Ian Wilkes.
Slow to mature, the Flower Alley colt had only a maiden victory on his resume through his first eight starts, but has registered back-to-back triple digit Beyer Speed Figures in his two most recent starts, an allowance victory over older horses on May 10  and the 7 ¼-length Matt Winn victory  over Stealcase and Macho Macho.
“I gave him a little break after [a fifth in] the Florida Derby,” said Wilkes, who trains Neck ‘n Neck for A. Stevens Miles, Jr. “It’s just maturity; he had to learn how to run against these horses. He was eligible for the optional allowance and he finally figured it out. He’s been doing things easier ever since.
“Early on, he’d make a lot of mistakes in races,” added Wilkes. “He’d be there, and then all of a sudden he’d drop back and wouldn’t pass horses. Then suddenly he’d come running at the end of the race. In the Sam F. Davis he was last at the quarter-pole, and then he came flying on the outside and got beaten two lengths.”
Wilkes said Leandro Goncalves, who is 3-for-3 aboard Neck ‘n Neck, will ride on Saturday.
Joining Neck ‘n Neck on Monday’s worktab will be stablemate Fort Larned, prepping for the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Invitational on August 4.
The 4-year-old E Dubai colt, a three-length winner over fellow Whitney contender Successful Dan in the Grade 3 Cornhusker last time out, also owns a victory in the Grade 3 Skip Away and a second to Successful Dan in the Grade 2 Alysheba at Churchill Downs on May 4.
“Usually, the handicap division isn’t that strong, but this year there are so many good older horses,” said Wilkes. “I have to think Fort Larned fits there. In the Alysheba he just got beat by Successful Dan and beat Mucho Macho Man [by six lengths], who came back and ran a very good race in winning the Suburban. He’s improving. I’ve figured him out, he’s figured me out, we’ve figured each other out.”
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Preston Stables’ Flat Out, winner of the 2011 Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, continued preparations for the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational Handicap on August 4 by breezing five furlongs in 1:02.61 on the Oklahoma training track on Sunday.
It was Flat Out’s first workout since the 6-year-old finished second to fellow Whitney contender Rule in the Grade 2 Monmouth Cup on July 7. The Monmouth Cup was Flat Out’s debut for Mott as he had previously been campaigned by Charles “Scooter” Dickey.
“I thought it was a perfect race for a comeback,” said Mott of Flat Out’s performance in the Monmouth Cup, his first race since a fifth in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap in February. “He was blocked in and never had a chance to run much. It would have been nice to win, but it was a good effort. His work was good this morning, so we’re happy.”
Flat Out will attempt to become the first horse to win the Whitney after having taken the Jockey Club Gold Cup the previous year since Slew o’ Gold won the 1983 Gold Cup and 1984 Whitney.
On the worktab at Belmont Park for Mott was Ron the Greek, who went five furlongs in 1:01.21, breezing. He will try to become the first horse to sweep the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and Whitney in the same year when he competes at the Spa on August 4.
The 5-year-old enters the Whitney off a win in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 16 at Churchill Downs. In 2010, Champion Older Male Blame captured the Stephen Foster and Whitney in succession
Mott said Ron the Greek, a Grade 3 winner as a 3-year-old for trainer Tom Amoss, has matured physically with age.
“He’s a big, strong horse, so it probably took him a little time to come into his own,” said Mott.
Mott added that he and owner Charlotte Weber of Live Oak Plantation haven’t decided where 2011 Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap hero To Honor and Serve will make his next start. The 4-year-old was fourth in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap on July 7 at Belmont.
Another older male in Mott’s barn is Lunar Victory, who will compete in Monday’s $100,000 Evan Shipman for New York-breds. The 1 1/8-mile race will be his first since a two-length allowance win on Aqueduct’s inner track in March.
The 5-year-old races for Juddmonte Farms, who purchased the son of Speightstown for $350,000 as a yearling and campaigned him in England, where he won one race in eight starts through the spring of 2011. He has won three straight since finishing second in his stateside bow last December.
“[Juddmonte will] buy a horse on occasion,” said Mott. “They don’t buy a lot of horses, but they bought him. He’s doing very well. He’s a little short on work, but the race came up and we’ll take our chance.”
Mott also reported that 2011 Champion Three-Year-Old Filly Royal Delta emerged from her neck victory in yesterday’s Grade 2 Delaware Handicap in good shape. Royal Delta, who carries the colors of Benjamin Leon’s Besilu Stables, will now target the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on August 26. The last time Royal Delta competed at Saratoga, she won the 2011 Grade 1 Alabama.
“She’s proud of herself,” Mott revealed. “She’s walking around like she never ran. She’s doing well. I’m hoping to run her in the Personal Ensign. That would be the plan.”
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Ruler On Ice, winner of the 2011 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, will return to the races after a five-month freshening on Wednesday in a $75,000 optional claimer at 1 1/8 miles.
The seven-horse field also includes multiple-stakes winner Pleasant Prince as well as the graded stakes-placed Cease and Schoolyard Dreams.
“When you’re running for [a purse of] $95,000, you better have your running shoes on,” trainer Kelly Breen said.
After winning the Belmont last year, Ruler On Ice, a son of Roman Ruler owned by George and Lori Hall, finished fourth in the Grade 1 Travers, second in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in November, however, he was a dull fifth. When he returned to the races in February, he again puzzled with an eighth-place finish in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park
“These horses aren’t machines, and he needed a break,” Breen said. “When he ran in the Donn, he told us, ‘Guys, I’m tired.’ George and Lori have their farm in Versailles [Ky.], and we kicked him out and we let him have some time to eat some grass and be a horse. He seems to be coming back good right now.
“We’re eager to see how he’s going to run for his fall campaign. I don’t think he’s 100 percent fit, but we’re looking to take baby steps to get back into the big races.”