Most Likely Winner: Lady Eli (#9)
The main storyline here revolves around Lady Eli, and whether she can avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss, and end her career on the racetrack in a fitting triumph. She’s favored to do so, but her task will not be an easy one. A crew of accomplished European runners have invaded to take down this prestigious prize, among them Lady Eli’s vanquisher from last year, Queen’s Trust.
A large field has been assembled for this event, but the pace is not predicted to be an especially fast one. The Pace Projector indicates that #12 Avenge, who led this race until the eighth pole in 2016, will be able to use similar tactics again this year. She will be stalked by Zipessa and Cambodia, with the tactical Lady Eli not far behind them, somewhere in mid-pack.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, WAR FLAG (12-1): This filly has yet to run a poor race, and seems to be improving with each trip over in the afternoon. She showed promise in her first couple of starts in this country, but she needed the stretch-out in distance to show her true potential. She ran better than it seems when third in the Glens Falls after having to launch a wide, prolonged rally from far back. She then put it all together when orchestrating a minor upset in the Flower Bowl, at the hands of Chad Brown’s formidable duo of Dacita and Grand Jete. Sitting closer to the pace worked for her that day, as she was able to grind out the victory. However, she’ll have to rally from much farther back this time in a race that should feature a faster pace. Furthermore, I’m not sure that this cutback to 1 1/8 miles does her any favors. One to consider using underneath if the price is right.
#2, SENGA (20-1): She experienced Group 1 glory when rallying to win the Prix de Diane back in June, which was one of just two occasions on which she got the kind of firm ground that she prefers. Was it the softer going that was her undoing last time in the Prix de l’Opera, or the tougher competition? Her prior run in the Group 2 Prix de la Nonette, where she lost against weaker foes, suggests that she just didn’t quite class up against true Group 1 rivals at Chantilly in October. Nevertheless, this 9-furlong trip should suit her, and she’s drawn well. I’ll be using her in exotics.
#3, BIRDIE GOLD (30-1): She earned her way into this race by taking down a curiously selected Win and You’re In race in Peru. Mike Smith climbs aboard, but that’s about the only positive thing I can say about this filly’s chances. An outsider.
#4, ZIPESSA (20-1): She was incredibly unlucky in last year’s Filly and Mare Turf, as she got squeezed back and essentially eliminated at the start. All things considered, she ran a fantastic race at over 53-1, following the move of Queen’s Trust while just not able to go with the winner in the lane. Her 2017 campaign has been one of ups and downs, as her connections have been trying to find the right distance for her. It seems like they’ve finally realized that shorter is indeed better, as she nearly held off the classy Miss Temple City going a mile at Kentucky Downs, and then took down an oddly run Grade 1 First Lady last time. If the pace is especially moderate, she might be able to accomplish a similar finish to her fifth-place result last year, but I fear that the 2017 edition of this race is stronger.
#5, WUHEIDA (20-1): After breaking her maiden as a two-year-old last August, she’s been on a steady Group 1 diet. Timeform Global Chief Correspondent Jamie Lynch points out that it was a stress fracture that delayed her 2017 campaign until July. Yet she’s looked no worse for wear this year, making four starts in four different countries, all at the highest level, never finishing worse than fourth. She wasn’t quick enough for Roly Poly going a mile back in the spring, but subsequently found 10 furlongs to be just a tad too far in the Prix de l’Opera last time, her late kick muted by the distance after looming up menacingly. Therefore, this nine-furlong trip should be perfect for her. She seems to handle any kind of ground, though progeny of Dubawi usually like it firm. I doubt she’ll end up going off at anything close to her morning line 20-1 odds, but she would be a viable alternative to the favorites at even half of that price.
#6, CAMBODIA (8-1): Like War Flag, this mare seems to show up and grab a check every time she runs. She avoided top-level competition all year, but she comes into this race having just landed a pair of Grade 2 wins over this Del Mar turf course. She was just able to hold sway going the 1 1/8-mile distance in that most recent effort, but she may be a bit better going about a sixteenth of a mile shorter. I hate to knock a horse in great form, but I think she’s a cut below the best Americans in here.
#7, DACITA (8-1): With the lone exception of this summer’s New York Stakes, where a slow pace and a badly judged ride left her with no chance, she has shown up every single time, often against the best fillies and mares in the country. She last contested this race in 2015, making just her second start in this country, and appeared to dislike a wet and quirky Keeneland course that day. Since then she’s shown the ability to run on a variety of surfaces, over distances ranging from 1 1/16 miles out to 10 furlongs. She’s the true closer of Chad Brown’s trio, so new rider Joel Rosario will need to work out a trip for her in this crowded field. She stacks up well in terms of ability, but there’s just so much quality among the top contenders in this race. Concerns about the lack of pace force me to use her strictly underneath.
#8, GRAND JETE (6-1): This filly dazzled when Chad Brown unveiled her as the new addition to his stable earlier this year. She took down a pair of allowance races and the Eatontown at Monmouth like it was nothing, ending those races with decisive acceleration in the stretch. Anyone who saw her run could plainly tell that bigger things were on the horizon, and indeed she’s been stepped up into Grade 1 company for her last two runs. She lost that pair of races, but she also exits them with a pair of excuses.
In the Beverly D., there’s no doubt that Grand Jete was Dacita’s superior. Grand Jete was boxed in down on the rail coming off the far turn, and had to endure a nightmare of stretch run, jumping over horses’ heels to get into the clear late. Ultimately, she just ran out of time to catch the winner, but she nevertheless left the impression that she’s a budding star. Unsurprisingly bet down to almost even-money to turn the tables on Dacita in the Flower Bowl, she couldn’t deliver. However, I think circumstances were not in her favor. There was just no speed at all in that race, and Javier Castellano was essentially forced to put her on the lead. Horses like her are almost always better with a target, and that instant response that we had seen in her prior starts was muted by the change in tactics.
Furthermore, 1 1/4 miles may have been a bit of stretch for her in the Flower Bowl, and this turnback to 9 furlong should suit her perfectly. She’s going to be a significantly higher price than stablemate Lady Eli, and she’s tactical enough to get the jump on some of late-running European rivals, including Queen’s Trust. At anything around her morning line 6-1 odds, this is the horse I want to bet.
#9, LADY ELI (5-2): What can I possibly say about this mare? There’s the tendency to take horses like her for granted, because they are just so reliable. Undefeated as a three-year-old, she hasn’t seemed quite as invincible since returning from a well-documented bout of laminitis. Her connections will tell you that she’s not quite the same, but is still able to perform at a high level due to her great determination.
I don’t quite agree. Lady Eli is better than ever this year. If anything, the competition has just gotten tougher, and she has stepped up her game accordingly. Chad Brown made the interesting decision to ship her out to California in the spring for the Gamely. She had to work harder than usual to hold off Goodyearforroses, but the manner in which that race was run highlighted Lady Eli’s brilliance. At the time, I said it was the finest effort of her career, and she’s maintained that level of performance since. She showed real guts when winning the Diana over the summer after breaking through the gate prior to the start, and she was back to her usual dominance when taking the Ballston Spa later in the meet.
This race seems tailor-made for her. Nine furlongs is unquestionably her best distance, and she’s unlikely to be rallying from as far back in the pack as she did in a faster-paced race last year. Irad Ortiz knows this filly so well, and times her move impeccably. They’re going to have a heck of a time beating her again.
#10, QUEEN’S TRUST (12-1): At first glance, it seems like she’s lost a step since her win in this race last year. She’s been off the board in all but one start, and enters this race off her worst performance of the season in the Prix de l’Opera, where beaten by today’s rival Rhododendron and Wuheida.
If you’re viewing Queen’s Trust through that lens, take a second look. This is a filly that absolutely must have firm ground to show her true ability, and she only got that once this season, in what was her toughest assignment – the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes against some of the best males in Europe. All things considered, she did exceptionally well to rally for fourth, just two lengths behind Highland Reel, and within a length of Ulysses. Those two are among the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Michael Stoute knows what he’s doing, as he selectively ships horses to North America, at a high rate of success. Over the past five years, he is 5 for 9 (56%, $4.82 ROI) in such situations.
The real question for Queen’s Trust is the cutback in distance, since she’s a true 10-furlong specialist, and she’s probably not going to get the same demanding early pace that set up her late run in last year’s race. The price will be right again, but I think the pair from the Chad Brown barn are slightly more likely to win this time.
#11, NEZWAAH (20-1): Her main claim to fame is a three-length score in the Group 1 Pretty Polly over the summer, but she hasn’t regained that form in two subsequent runs, behind the great Enable at York, and then as a disappointment against inferior runners at Woodbine. She showed a relentless, grinding style in that Pretty Polly win, and I worry that she’s just not fast enough for this shorter distance. I prefer other Euros.
#12, AVENGE (8-1): I largely dismissed this mare last year, and I’m not going to make the same mistake again. It took her a couple of starts to get back into form since returning from the break, but she appeared to be back on top of her game in the Rodeo Drive last time. The 1 1/4 miles was a stretch for her at Santa Anita last year, and she figures to be much more comfortable traveling an eighth of a mile shorter this year. It remains to be seen if she can reproduce her 2016 run, because that was the best effort of her career, but she appears to be in position to lead them a long way.
#13, GOODYEARFORROSES (12-1): She’s lost to three of her main rivals in this race in each of her last three starts, and her form completely fell apart in the Rodeo Drive. She appears to be heading in the wrong direction, and probably isn’t good enough even at her best.
#14, RHODODENDRON (8-1): Jamie Lynch is taking a very positive view of this filly, suggesting that this distance is perfect for her, and the Prix de l’Opera is a sign that she’s back in top form following a disastrous run at Chantilly back in June.
However, I cannot ignore the negatives: She’s being asked to break from the far-outside post position in this 14-horse field, in a race where the first bend into the straight comes up quickly, and another bend into this first actual turn follows shortly thereafter. Unlike the other European contenders, she has not proven that she’s perceptibly better on firmer ground. It’s a feather in her cap that she can run on anything, but it also means that her form is more exposed than that of a runner like Queen’s Trust.
Finally, Aidan O’Brien just has not been connecting with the fillies and mares that he ships out of Europe, unable to replicate the success he’s had with their male counterparts. Over the past five years, he is just 1 for 24 with female foreign shippers, and only five finished in the money.
#15-AE, KITTEN’S ROAR (20-1): Best on softer turf courses, she’ll likely be overmatched on faster ground if she draws in.
#16-AE, RESPONSIBLEFORLOVE (20-1): She was running on well at the end of the Rodeo Drive, but that was after Avenge already had the race sewn up. She’s never run well enough to compete at this elite level.