by Ted Black
The day was hardly ideal for man or beast. But it apparently suited jockey Sheldon Russell just fine, as he won two of the four stakes races on Laurel Park’s Saturday afternoon card.
Russell, who had mounts in all four added-money events, steered Star Pearl to a three-length score in the Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares in the seventh race. Then, in the Native Dancer for four-year-olds and up, he and Elnaawi teamed up for a facile seven-length triumph.
Star Pearl, a daughter of Tapit, earned her second North American stakes score in the Nellie Morse, covering the one-mile and one-sixteenth in 1:46.33. She has now won six of 13 career outings, with a lifetime bankroll of nearly $187,000. Her dam, Lexi Star, had won the Nellie Morse eight years earlier for trainer Chris Grove and owner-breeder Stephen Quick, who is also the breeder of Star Pearl who is trained by Graham Motion for the Pearl Bloodstock, Ltd.
“Recently they have liked her morning workouts,” said Russell, who had not ridden Star Pearl since an eighth-place finish in a one-turn mile allowance at Laurel 13 months earlier, when the now-five-year-old was just three. “I think she has really matured over the last year. Going from three to four really made a difference. She is very easy to ride. She broke nicely and put me in a great spot going into the first turn. I was able to sit off the speed and when I asked her to go she dug in and finished up well.”
Motion was not on hand to saddle Star Pearl on Saturday, leaving the job to assistant Adrian Rolls. Reached by phone that evening, Motion spoke highly of the Tapit mare.
“She spent the first part of her career in Europe, but she’s trained well for me since I’ve had her,” Motion said. “I thought she was really training well leading up to the [Nellie Morse]. It looked like she ran superbly [Saturday]. I think the two-turn route distances are going to be best for her this year. I have given some thought to maybe cutting her back and trying her in the [Grade 2 Barbara] Fritchie Handicap, but I think the nine-furlong [Maryland Racing Media Stakes, on the same day] is more likely her next start. She really has matured quite a bit over the last year. I think she’ll do well this year and the best spots for her will be in the two-turn races.”
Russell, who is now 24 wins shy of 1,000 victories in his career, did not have much time to celebrate his victory aboard Star Pearl in the Nellie Morse. He raced back to the jockey’s room, swapped the yellow silks of Pearl Bloodstock, Ltd. for the more recognizable royal blue silks of Shadwell Stable, and then climbed aboard Elnaawi for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin in the Native Dancer Stakes. But as was the case with Motion 30 minutes earlier, McLaughlin was not on hand Saturday and turned the chores over to assistant Austin Luttrell to give Russell a leg up on Elnaawi, a gelded son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.
In some respects the Nellie Morse and Native Dancer were almost mirror images of one another, with Elnaawi able to settle well off the early pace before Russell sent the Shadwell runner on an extended wide bid through the far turn. At the head of the lane, Elnaawi still had plenty in reserve. Under mild urging from Russell, the Street Sense gelding shifted gears in the lane and appeared to thrive over the off going as he splashed home seven lengths clear while covering the one-mile and one-sixteenth in 1:45.40 for his fifth win in 15 career outings, pushing his lifetime bankroll past $290,000.
“The race worked out perfect,” Russell said. “He warmed up good and he took a liking to the track. He broke well and put me in a good spot. I thought Stormin Monarcho was the horse to beat. When he started backing up, my horse made a huge run and he never looked back. I stayed after him a little bit in the lane, but he really seemed to like the surface. They were going a pretty good tempo up front, so I just wanted to stay off of the speed a little and then stay clear of traffic.”
“When we saddled him, I told Sheldon to keep him close,” Luttrell said. “He had been training well [at Belmont Park] and Kiaran thought he was going to run a big race today. He ran exceptionally well at Keeneland [in winning an allowance race in October] and he always enjoys the wet track and today we got lucky that it came up muddy.”
While Star Pearl is likely to make her next start in central Maryland, Luttrell indicated that Elnaawi will probably run next back in New York.