Stay Forever came from the rear of the pack with a huge rush down the center of the track in the final stages to nip Sand Springs for victory in the $168,300 Early Times Mint Julep Handicap (gr. IIIT) for fillies and mares on the Churchill Downs turf Saturday.
Ridden by Eddie Castro, the Florida-bred 7-year-old Stack mare broke through for her first graded stakes triumph by a half-length over Sand Springs, who edged New Zealander Eternal Melody by a neck. The final time was 1:42 3/5 for the 1 1/8-mile event on firm turf.
Stay Forever was last as the field of nine hit the final turn. Sand Springs, who stalked pacesetter Two Dot Slew in second until taking over a furlong from home, appeared to be bounding to victory for Mark Guidry until overtaken in deep stretch by a flying Stay Forever. Eternal Melody, making his first start in the United States for trainer Bobby Frankel, made a strong move at the rail for Pat Day to finish a close third.
Two Dot Slew set moderate fractions of :24 1/5, :48 3/5, 1:12 4/5 and 1:36 3/5.
Aud, favored at 5-2 with Brian Peck in the saddle, raced four or five wide throughout and never challenged, finishing seventh.
Winning trainer Wolfson said Stay Forever missed two years of her racing career because of a tendon injury and her 2003 season ended with a foot problem in March. She returned to racing in December and her victory in the Early Times Mint Julep was her third in five races this year and her second win in a row. She won the Hollywood Wildcat Breeders' Cup at Calder Race Course in her previous start on May 1.
"She was very impressive," said Wolfson, who won his first Churchill Downs stakes race. "She'd been training as good, if not better, than she did three or four years ago and back then I thought she was as good as any filly in the country. But the last couple of months she's been training like a young horse."
Saturday's victory was worth $104,346. She has nine wins in 15 career starts with earnings $550,399 for owner/breeder Santa Cruz Ranch.
Castro, the Eclipse-award winning apprentice of 2003, captured his first Churchill stakes race in his first trip to the Louisville track.
Sand Springs was an unlucky runner-up.
"It was the first time she ever relaxed in her life and she did it well," Guidry said. "She relaxed real nicely. Coming off the turn, turning for home I went ahead and urged her a little bit and she went on. I asked for a little more around the eighth pole and she gave it me. She ran an incredible race. She ran a great race and she just got outrun by a better horse today."
Stay Forever paid $12, $5.60 and $4.20. Sand Springs returned $4.40 and $3.40. Eternal Melody was $4.40 to show. The exacta was worth $69.40.
Two Dot Slew, Shaconage, River Flow, Aud, Daisyago and Kitty's Legend completed the order.