by Frank Vespe
For most people in racing, the news that Ashado had been named to the sport’s Hall of Fame came as no great surprise. After all, she’d won 12 of 21 starts, earned nearly $4 million, and was a two-time Eclipse Award winner.
But for trainer Chris Grove, who on Saturday at Pimlico won his fifth Geisha Stakes since 2004, the news registered a little differently.
“This is going to sound a little too nostalgic,” Grove said following Celtic Katie’s Geisha victory. “Thinking about Ashado yesterday made me go back and revisit everything with Silmaril.”
Maryland-bred Silmaril won 16 of 36 career starts, inching past a million dollars in earnings with the winner’s share in her final race, the 2008 What a Summer Stakes at Laurel Park. She was the first of Grove’s charges to win the Geisha.
An impressive resume, for sure, but safe to say, she was no Ashado.
Except on one May day in 2005 — when she was better than Ashado.
For on that Black-Eyed Susan day, the daughter of Diamond out of the Spend a Buck mare Kattebuck, bested Ashado in the Grade 3 Pimlico Breeders’ Cup Distaff Handicap. In the slop, Silmaril stalked the leisurely pace set by Ashado, eased out in the lane, and won by nearly a length.
Ashado “was no match for the winner,” according to the official chart.
Yet while the result came as a surprise to the bettors, who made Silmaril the longest shot of the quartet of runners who went to the post (after five had scratched), it was exactly the result that Grove and rider Ryan Fogelsonger had expected.
“I worked her the week before for Chris Grove,” Fogelsonger said in an interview last year. “I’m coming back to the barn on her back, and Chris looks at me, and he goes, ‘Ashado who?'”
“I was standing in the paddock with the Quicks [who, along with Christopher Feifarek, owned Silmaril], and I said to Mrs. Quick, ‘I feel sorry for Todd Pletcher,'” recounted Grove. “And she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘He doesn’t know he’s going to get beat in here.'”
Though Ashado went off at 3-10 odds and controlled the pace, that’s exactly what happened.
“It was so exciting,” Fogelsonger said.
“That was my best racing moment,” Grove added.
“Everything was wet, the track was sloppy,” Grove remembered with a laugh while snapping his fingers like a railbird rooting home a longshot. “And I was standing on this chair jumping up and down, riding harder than Fogelsonger, in dress shoes and a suit and tie. If I slip, I break my neck.
“It didn’t matter, because I was on that horse in the moment.”
Skeptics can point out that Silmaril had the advantage of staying at home to run, and that the sloppy track was to her liking — factors that perhaps helped to level the playing field.
“No matter what the situation was, we were still able to say we beat the champion horse,” countered Fogelsonger.
Ashado had toiled almost exclusively in Grade 1 company in her career. Of her eight starts immediately prior to the race at Pimlico, seven had been in Grade 1 events; the other had come in the Grade 2 Cotillion at Parx. She had run a disappointing fifth, at 1-2 odds, in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom in April, in her seasonal debut. Following the Pimlico race, she made her final five starts in Grade 1 company.
That she would show up in a Grade 3 event with a $150,000 purse struck Grove as suggesting she still wasn’t back to her sophomore form. Silmaril, meanwhile, was training as well as could be.
“I said, we’re on top of our game, something’s not 100 percent with [Ashado],” he explained. “We got her.”
His voice grew quiet. “And, we did,” he added.
Celtic Katie enjoyed a perfect trip under rider Javier Santiago to take Saturday’s Geisha. After stalking Brenda’s Way, who zipped to a six length lead while setting solid fractions, she burst through on the rail and drew off to win by five. Running time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:46.67, with Celtic Katie earning a 79 Beyer in her first stakes win. By Posse out of the stake-winning Not for Love mare Katie’s Love, she’s a homebred for the Lewis Family Racing Stable…
Brenda’s Way hung on to second while Addison Run, the 6-5 favorite, loomed but flattened out to finish third…
Two three year-olds, Steady N Love and Charlie Renee, tackled their elders in the race but to no avail. They ran fourth and fifth, respectively.