Happy Ticket, on the short end of narrow decisions in her past two starts, finally won a close one Saturday when she nipped front-running Oonagh Maccool in a stirring finish to capture the $321,900 Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II) for fillies and mares at Churchill Downs.
With the victory, Happy Ticket is the first Louisiana-bred filly or mare to top $1 million in earnings.
Jockey Julien Leparoux, riding the 5-year-old mare for the first time, played the waiting game and it paid off in the end with a victory by a head. Laying third as the Irish-bred 3-5 favorite Oonagh Maccool and Character Builder dueled on the front end, Happy Ticket picked up some momentum coming off the far turn, reaching the leaders in mid-stretch. After gaining a slight advantage on the outside, Happy Ticket drifted out a bit as Oonagh Maccool and Rafael Bejarano fought back all the way to the wire. Happy Ticket prevailed in the final jumps in 1:49 1/5 for the 1 1/18-mile distance.
"When I asked her, it was a very good feeling," said Leparoux. "It was good that the leader (Oonah Maccool) broke so sharp, because I could just sit and track the leader. That was good for me and my filly, too."
Character Builder held on for third, with La Reason and Gallant Secret completing the order.
Happy Ticket got away slowly after throwing her head at the break and trailed Oonagh Maccool and Character Builder through fractions of :23 3/5, :47 3/5 and 1:11 3/5.
"She broke very fast, and I thought about taking her back and coming from behind, but she was fresh and strong so we went to the lead," said Bejarano of Oonagh Maccool. "I had a lot of horse underneath me throughout and even in the stretch she was strong, but the other horse came up to us quickly and really looked good. My filly had a lot left in the stretch and was game, but (Happy Ticket) was very strong late."
Andrew Leggio Jr. trains Happy Ticket for owner/breeder Stewart Madison. After beginning her career with nine straight victories, all romps, the daughter of Anet had lost four of her past five starts, the last two in heartbreaking fashion, both at Oaklawn Park. She lost to Round Pond by a neck in the Azeri Breeders' Cup (gr. III) March 11 and by the same margin behind Spun Sugar in the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) one month later.
"She's a pleasure to be around," said Madison. "When she's not racing, she's like a pet. Nothing bothers her. She's just got this great demeanor. When it comes time to run, she shows up, and after that, it's just back to basics."
Happy Ticket, who won the Ballerina (gr. I) in the mud at Saratoga last summer, has now won 12 of 17 in her career with earnings of 1,176,838.
The second choice paid $5 and $2.20. Oonagh Maccool, whose three-race winning streak came to an end for trainer Todd Pletcher, returned $2.10. There was no show wagering.
Oonagh Maccool was coming off a 3 1/4-length triumph in the Louisville Breeders' Cup (gr. II) at Churchill Downs May 5.