(Edited NYRA report)
Maryland-bred Cruise Along had done most of her running and all of her winning on the turf, but a huge recent effort on the dirt has earned her a trip to New York to try for a graded stakes win in Saturday's $100,000 Affectionately Handicap (gr. III) at 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares.
Sondra Bender's Cruise Along was entered in the Geisha Handicap at Laurel Park on December 7, a race restricted to Maryland-bred fillies and mares on dirt. She surprised everyone, including trainer Lawrence Murray, when she drew off to win at odds of 7-1.
"The only reason we ran her in that race was because she was doing so well and we thought she could get a piece of a $100,000 race for Maryland-breds," Murray said. "She made her first four starts on the dirt. We changed surfaces with her and she really took to the grass, so we never really thought about the dirt again until her last start. She didn't have a super year on the turf last year, mostly because we had trouble finding good grass courses after all that rain."
Murray will not be sending Cruise Along alone; in fact, it will be a "buddy cruise." Joining Cruise Along will be River Cruise, a filly who just turned 4. While Cruise Along likes to come from off the pace, her stablemate usually does her running up front. River Cruise, also owned by Bender, recently finished fourth in the $60,000 Politely for Maryland-bred 3-year-old fillies.
"Her last race was a little bit disappointing," Murray said. "We were trying to get her to relax and she got pinned down on the rail. She's the type of filly that gets very nervous when she's in tight and she just sort of galloped around there.
"The Affectionately is a tempting spot for both fillies because it is a graded race and the owner bred these horses and their dams are still in production."
Although she was defeated in the Montauk Handicap for New York-breds in November by Queen's Triumph and Message Red, Our Canterbury Stables' Golden Damsel may have run the best race.
Golden Damsel suffered a minor knee fracture when she romped home in the May 18 Bouwerie. The injury did not require surgery, just some time off. The Gold Token filly returned to the races on the turf in the November 9 Perfect Arc division of the New York Stallion Stakes.
"I rushed her into the stallion stakes to get a race into her before the Montauk and she was not as tight as I wanted her for the Montauk," trainer Gary Contessa said. "She can be a little headstrong and she got out in front by eight lengths down the backside in the Montauk. Had she sat a length in front, she might have been able to win."
Following the Montauk, Golden Damsel returned to the winner's circle when she wired a field of second-level allowance foes over a muddy inner track last month.
Contessa will also saddle Dancen in the Sun, a new addition to his barn. The 6-year-old mare was just 1-for-10 in 2003 with all her races in Canada. Her lone victory came at Fort Erie in a muddy 'three-lifetime' allowance.
George Kelly's Queen's Triomphe, who defeated Golden Damsel in the Montauk, returned to run a game second behind Savedbythelight in the grade III Ladies Handicap.
"I thought she ran bravely in the pocket," trainer Tom Bush said of the Ladies effort. "Jose (Espinoza) knew the pace was slow, but there was really nothing he could do about it."
Bush's main concern for Saturday is the turnback in distance to 8 1/2 furlongs.
"Maybe we have an advantage at a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter because some of the others don't want to go that far," Bush said. "We're hoping the turnback doesn't hurt us. She's won races around two turns at a mile and a sixteenth before."
Message Red, owned by Lansdon Robbins, finished second as the favorite in the Montauk. The rallying daughter of Cryptoclearance figures to be a stretch threat once again, especially if a pace battle develops.
Green Jeans, a three-time winner over the inner track, will be making her first start since finishing fourth in an allowance last April. Others competing in the Affectionately are Austin's Mom and Consort Music.
PP. HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY, WGT.
1. Queen's Triomphe, Tom Bush, Jose Espinoza, 114
2. Message Red, Jimmy Jerkens, Javier Castellano, 116
3. Golden Damsel, Gary Contessa, Richard Migliore, 112
4a. River Cruise, Lawrence Murray, Shaun Bridgmohan, 113
5. Green Jeans, Billy Turner, C.C. Lopez, 112
6. Consort Music, Mark Hennig, Julian Pimentel, 112
7a. Cruise Along, Lawrence Murray, Mike Luzzi, 115
8. Austin's Mom, Allen Iwinski, Pablo Fragoso, 112
9. Dancen in the Sun, Gary Contessa, Norberto Arroyo Jr., 112