Va-bred Stellar Wind geared up for third Distaff try

by | Nov 2, 2017 | Breaking, Features, National news, Racing, Top Stories, Virginia

No daylight between 2015 Distaff winner Stopchargingmaria and late-closing Stellar Wind. Photo by © Breeders’ Cup/Matt Herp2015

by Nick Hahn

An Albemarle County-bred mare will be hunting her white whale where the surf meets the turf this Friday evening as part of the Breeder’s Cup at Del Mar racetrack in California.

There have been times in her career when Stellar Wind has been the best female thoroughbred in the country, but never in mid-autumn after a Breeders’ Cup race. Yet coming into the $2 million Longines Breeder’s Cup Distaff (G1) she has that recognition as the 5-2 morning line favorite. She is also the top-rated Midlantic-bred runner, just edging out Mor Spirit for that honor.

She was foaled in northeastern Albemarle County over five years ago, the last horse that Peggy Augustus’ Keswick Stable would ever breed. Her campaign in 2017 has been perfect, winning each of her three Grade 1 starts at three different racetracks including Del Mar, where she owns a spotless three-for-three mark.

Her wins would never be confused with Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont Stakes victory with margins of a neck, a neck, and a length-and-a-quarter this year, but that has always been her style. Stellar Wind nearly always runs second up the backstretch, only a head behind, and pilfers the lead after straightening up after the turn.

“In the mornings, she’s not a great work horse,” jockey Victor Espinoza explains. “She will not do anything on her own. I have to ask her every single time. Even in her races, the same thing. She never wins by many lengths, no matter what race she runs in. She doesn’t win by far, but she wins.”

Her two previous starts in the Breeders’ Cup have been heartbreakers. In her three-year-old season, there was a narrow loss by a neck that had to be settled by the stewards. After eventual winner Stophchargingmaria bumped Stellar Wind and floated her out in the stretch run, Espinoza claimed foul. But the stewards made no change to the order of finish in that thriller.

Last year at Santa Anita, after besting champion Beholder twice in races leading up to the Distaff, she was fidgety in the gate, broke in the air, and ran five wide to finish over three lengths behind Beholder, who won.

“At Keeneland she had a rough trip and that was bore out by the long inquiry,” recalled trainer John Sadler. “Last year, she just picked a very inopportune time to not break well. We went through this in depth because of the magnitude of what it meant and Espinoza said she stood beautifully, but the moment they sprung the gates, she was taking one step back.”

Now a five-year-old, Stellar Wind, for the first nineteen months of her life, was a resident of northeastern Albemarle County, before being sold twice as a yearling in sales at Saratoga Springs, NY and Timonium, MD. She became the private purchase of Hronis Racing shortly after her first two starts as a two-year-old at Maryland’s Laurel Park in 2014, the latter an impressive score by almost nine lengths.

After being shipped to California, Espinosa received the mount and won two sophomore stakes at Santa Anita, including the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, making Stellar Wind the morning line favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. The Virginia-bred ran fourth in that race, the worst finish of her career.

Yet Stellar Wind has won 10 of her 15 career starts. She is by Curlin out of the Malibu Moon mare Evening Star. On Saturday she turned in the fastest work of the 47 runners who went five furlongs that day, covering the distance in 59 4/5 seconds. On Monday, she drew the #2 post in the starting gate in a relatively small Distaff field of eight that includes the tough sophomores Elate (3-1), Abel Tasman (4-1) and Paradise Woods (9-2). Forever Unbridled (4-1) will be the only runner in the field that she has faced before.

“She’s ready to go,” said Sadler after the impressive work. “We gave her a nice gallop, leaning toward being a strong gallop toward the end, bringing her up to the race on Friday.”

Sadler is changing at least one tactic with his mare in this year’s Distaff. Stellar Wind comes into the Breeder’s Cup after a 14-week layoff, a full month longer than he gave her two years back (and two months more than she had last year). The trainer is looking for a breakout win of his own. Sadler is 0-for-39 in Breeders’ Cup races.

Whether Stellar Wind becomes the best female thoroughbred in North America may be determined Friday, but she may already be the best thoroughbred, male or female, to come out of the Charlottesville area. Margaret Van Clief (Nydrie Stud) was a co-breeder of 1947 Kentucky Derby winner, Jet Pilot. Keswick also bred Semoran, who started in the Kentucky Derby in 1996.

“She doesn’t owe us anything,” commented Augustus about the upcoming race. “I’d like her to feel like she does. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Augustus’ niece, Sydney Jones, is an animal communicator who talks to animals via telepathy. Jones told her aunt that the then-unnamed filly is “going to give you a lot of heartaches, but she’s going to run like the wind and she wants to be named after the wind.”

That prophecy has come true. Stellar Wind has done both. Now she has one more chance to be stellar, and to run like the wind.