Malibu Prayer, taking command on the opening turn, turned back 3-5 favorite Unrivaled Belle in upper stretch and held on gamely to win the $250,000 Ruffian Invitational Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO) Aug. 1 to give owner/breeder Edward P. Evans a second major victory at Saratoga this weekend.
Evans' homebred A Little Warm won the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) for 3-year-olds July 31.
Todd Pletcher trains Malibu Prayer, a 4-year-old by Malibu Moon filly ridden to her first grade I victory by John Velazquez. Unbridled Belle finished 1 3/4 lengths back in second. It was 9 3/4 lengths to third-place finisher Classofsixtythree.
With the victory, Malibu Prayer earned a starting berth in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs.
Unrivaled Belle, with Kent Desormeaux aboard, was washy in the post parade and a bit fractious in the gate. With Malibu Prayer breaking just to her inside, the favorite found immediate trouble. She bumped Malibu Prayer early and stumbled a bit before settling into second on the first turn.
Velazquez, meanwhile, steered Malibu Prayer to the lead along the inside and she maintained a one-length advantage over Unrivaled Belle through six furlongs, clicking off solid quarter-mile fractions of :23.42, :46.96 and 1:10.47.
Velazquez asked Malibu Prayer for a little bit more at the top of the stretch and she edged away to a two-length lead under moderate urging at the eighth pole. She held on resolutely while outfinishing Unrivaled Belle in a good time of 1:48.14 for the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track.
“I figured I would let her break and do it nice and easy, whatever she was comfortable with," Velazquez said of the winner. "When I asked her at the quarter pole, she responded very well. She did it very easily.”
Desormeaux lamented the start.
“She overextended herself at the start and grabbed her quarter," he said. "We had dead aim at the winner, but the winner ran too fast for us at the end.”
"When Unrivaled Belle stumbled at the start, that gave us a bit of an upper hand," noted Tristan Barry, assistant trainer to Pletcher. "She was able to get into a rhythm and just took it from there.”
A four-length winner of the Lighthouse Stakes at Monmouth Park June 26, Malibu Prayer has been first or second in nine of her 10 lifetime races, including six victories. Her only prior graded win came in the one-mile Chilukki Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs to conclude her 3-year-old campaign last November. She extended her lifetime earnings to $558,026 for Evans, who pocketed $150,000 for the Ruffian win.
The winning bay filly is out of the Grand Slam mare Grand Prayer.
Malibu Prayer, who carried 116 and received three pounds from the favorite, paid $6.70, $2.80 and $2.50 as the second choice in the field of six.
Unrivaled Belle, recording her third runner-up showing in a grade I race for trainer Bill Mott, returned $2.20 and $2.10 and completed a $10.40 exacta. Unrivaled Belle was favored off her second-place effort to Life At Ten in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park June 12.
“She took a pretty good shot at the start," Mott said of Unrivaled Belle. "It was decent enough where she had to recover from it. We might have been a half-length closer to (Malibu Prayer) going into the turn instead of having daylight in between us. We might have been able to put a little pressure on her earlier than we did."
Classofsixtythree, who paid $4.10 to show with Javier Castellano aboard, finished a neck in front of Starship Angel. Tasty Temptation and Zaphyra followed.