Tequilita powers to Charles Town Oaks triumph
by Ted Black
Heading into the latest edition of the Grade III, $300,000 Charles Town Oaks for three-year-old fillies, the finale of a 12-race card on Charles Town’s annual “Race For The Ribbon” program that ended with a quartet of stakes at the two-turn, seven-furlong distance, much of the attention was focused on a pair of sophomore fillies whose first stakes wins had come eight months apart at Laurel Park.
Shimmering Aspen did not draw into the body of the field, but she eventually earned a spot in the starting gate when four of her foes scratched and the Rodney Jenkins trainee was sent postward as the 6-5 favorite under “Cowboy” Steve Hamilton following a pair of sharp stakes scores in one-turn, seven-furlong races at Laurel. Her lone previous try against graded stakes company, the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, had been her most recent defeat and her lone off-the-board finish from seven starts.
Tequilita had recorded her first stakes victory last fall at Laurel when she captured the $100,000 Smart Halo Stakes for two-year-old fillies and then jumped right into graded company and prevailed as a 14-1 shot in the Grade II, $200,000 Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park for trainer Michael Matz and owner-breeder Dorothy Matz. The sophomore daughter of Union Rags was the 5-2 second choice under Luis Saez although she had most recently finished third in the Grade I, $500,000 Test Stakes for her age and gender at Saratoga.
Soon after the gate opened in the Oaks, longshots Astrollinthepark (Alex Cintron) and Downtown Mama displayed the best early speed while Tequilita and Shimmering Aspen bided their time through the early stages. Longshot Yorkiepoo Princess, another one that scratched into the field but was quickly dismissed by the public, launched her bid on the far turn and surged to a short lead at the head of the lane, but Tequilita overhauled her and Overture (Mike Smith), the Grade III Indiana Oaks winner for trainer Bill Mott, to prevail by just over a length in 1:26.01.
A homebred daughter of Union Rags trained by Matz for his wife Dorothy, the filly’s owner-breeder, Tequilita recorded her second win from five starts this year and pushed her seasonal earnings past $400,000. She now owns a solid 4-3-1 slate and nearly $530,000 banked from 10 career tries, with the Oaks being her second graded stakes score. While trainer Michael Matz was not on hand after saddling several horses at Parx earlier in the day, Dorothy Matz was thrilled with the performance of her talented homebred out of the Mr. Greely mare, Sangrita.
“This has been like a homecoming for me,” Matz said. “It’s probably been 40 years since the last time I came here. We used to come here back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and look for horses that we could turn into show horses. I still own this filly’s mare and she was always special to us. We knew that she would adapt to the surroundings right away. This was her first start under the lights, but she’s really a calm, smart horse. She had been racing with some good fillies in the Kentucky Oaks and the Test, but anytime you’re in a graded stakes you can’t take anything for granted.”
Matz noted that she expects her husband to begin preparing Tequilita for the Grade II, $400,000 Raven’s Run Stakes at Keeneland next month, but admitted the Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Sprint was not on the schedule.
“We thought that if she ran well here tonight we would go to Keeneland for the next race,” Matz said. “But we never had any plans of running her in the Breeders’ Cup, not this year. I don’t want her running on that hard California track [Del Mar]. She’s going to point for that race at Keeneland and then we’ll look for another spot for her after that, but we’re not pointing her to the Breeders’ Cup this year.”
Jockey Luis Saez had ridden Tequilita in each of her previous four starts, beginning with the victory in the Forward Gal Stakes, followed by a runner-up effort in the Gulfstream Park Oaks then a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks and a third-place effort in the Test. Saez admitted he thought his mount had a class edge on her rivals heading into the Charles Town Oaks and his main concern was being able to save ground over the smallest track on which she has competed thus far.
“I wasn’t too worried about too many of the horses,” Saez said. “My main concern was getting her over to the rail, especially on this track where the inside is usually the place to be. When she settled down for me down the backside I knew she was okay. Racing under the lights didn’t bother her. When I asked her to run leaving the quarter pole she responded. I knew I still had plenty of horse turning for home. She finished up really well and I think she still had plenty left at the wire.”
One race earlier in the $50,000 Pink Ribbon Stakes for fillies and mares at the Oaks distance of seven furlongs, Lake Ponchatrain (Xavier Perez) benefited from patient handling early and then swept to command with a three-wide bid on the far turn and held safe 3-5 favorite Kathballu for a length score while getting the distance in 1:25.91. A five-year-old Afleet Express mare owned and trained by Ernest Haynes, Lake Ponchatrain notched her third win from seven starts this year and now owns an 8-3-4 slate and $180,000 banked from 18 local tries and 10 wins and nearly $230,000 earned from 26 lifetime outings overall.
“Going into her last race [the Shine Again Stakes at Laurel Park] the trainer thought she might be a little short being off three months,” Perez said. “But she figured to be much better tonight and she loves this track. This track is like home for me. I got my start here and I always enjoyed riding here. When I smooched to her nearing the three-sixteenths pole she responded for me and then when I smooched to her again inside the eighth pole she just kicked away. She loves this track and most of the other fillies in here had never won here.”
One race earlier in the $50,000 Frank Gall Memorial Handicap for West Virginia-bred runners three-year-olds and upward, Unrideabull (Carlos Castro) gained command passing the finish line the first time, opened a clear lead on the far turn and then just outlasted the late bid of Start Line, who had been squeezed back at the start and taken back to last in the opening strides, to score as the 7-2 third choice. A sophomore son of Bullsbay owned, bred and trained by Michael Sterling, Unrideabull notched his third win from four starts this year and recorded his fifth victory from seven outings overall and pushed his career earnings toward $125,000 with his third local stakes triumph. He had defeated state-bred three-year-olds in the Robert Leavitt Memorial in his previous start five weeks ago.
“I wanted to make sure he got away from there okay and didn’t get too much pressure,” Castro said. “He was going pretty easily down the backside and then he opened up on the far turn. But when he did that he started looking around. He’s always better in the morning when he has a horse to chase down. When he gets out on his own he looks around. I really had to get after him because he didn’t know that other horse [Start Line] was coming until the last 100 yards or so.”
Then one race earlier on the card, Moonlit Song (Christian Heraldo) overcame post 10 and a solid field of older rivals when she gained command past the wire the first time, maintained a short lead down the backside then sprinted clear in the lane to a seven-length score in the $50,000 Sadie Hawkins Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares. One of only two three-year-old fillies in the field, Moonlit Song notched her second straight stakes score and her seventh win in eight starts this year and her eighth win in 11 career tries for owner-breeder-trainer Tim Grams when she whistled the seven furlongs in 1:25.87, slightly faster than Tequilita won the Oaks.
“Sometimes I get worried when I see Christian trying to rate her a little bit, but I guess he knows what he’s doing out there,” Grams said. “She’s really something special. I wanted to see how she would do against older, state-bred fillies and mares so I would kind of have an idea of where to go with her next. But now I have to take a shot at the Cavada [on West Virginia Breeders Classics night here Oct. 14]. She’s just too good right now not to go back in there.”
“My only concern was getting her past [Lies And Scandals] before the first turn,” Hiraldo said. “Once she made the front on the first turn she was good and relaxed. I started to ask her a little leaving the quarter pole and then next thing I know she’s three, four lengths clear. She’s really, really good. I can’t to ride her back in the [Cavada]. She loves this track and the distance and now I know she can beat these older fillies.”
NOTES Handle was a shade over $1.6 million on the 12-race card, including more than $160,000 wagered on-track… Chanel’s Legacy was jostled leaving the gate in the Charles Town Oaks, immediately eased by rider Jose Montano, and vanned off in distress.