His nerves were shot. His stomach was all knotted up. He hadn't slept in days. The incubus of a paceless, traffic-plagued running of the $200,000 Beverly Hills Handicap (gr. IT) had left trainer Simon Bray a near-wreck."Washed out. Bad," Bray said in his barn office, describing his condition in racetrack parlance. "I don't know why. I'm more nervous about this than I've been about anything in a long time. Usually I can take it all in my stride."Less than two hours later, the agitation was gone, expunged by the latest display of magnificence from Astra. And if the Beverly Hills is any indication, there are sure to be plenty of sleepless nights ahead.For everyone else, that is. The dynamite daughter of Theatrical has been positively devastating in 2001, a fact Bray attributes to the benefits of time, love, and tenderness."She takes her racing a lot better now," he acknowledged. "She eats good. She used to be really highly-strung, even as a 3-year-old, and we've just taken our time with her. I think not racing her for six months helped a lot. And she's just a lot smarter filly, a lot brighter now, and she handles everything a lot better."Of course, Astra has always had her own special corner of her trainer's heart. Bray saw the potential instantly when he first caught a glimpse of her as a 2-year-old on the farm. He nurtured her large frame, her sometimes-fragile mind, and her limitless talent with equal parts love and foresight. She paid him back by going four-for-five as a 3-year-old.But it was the following spring, when Astra truly began to blossom, that Bray realized he had a gem on his hands. The 31-year-old Englishman can even handpick the race that convinced him."That's when I knew I had a special horse. Very special," Bray admitted, recalling Astra's troubled but inspiring victory in Keeneland's Jenny Wiley Stakes (gr. IIIT) in April, 2000. And his conviction rang true less than two months later, when Astra returned to the West Coast and outran Happyanunoit in the Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT). For Astra, the Gamely was a launching pad to stardom. Her hard effort, however, came at a price.They crossed paths again a month later in last year's Beverly Hills Handicap, but this time, Astra wanted no part of the action. Happyanunoit won for fun that day, a listless Astra finishing fourth, and Bray was downright flummoxed. It didn't take long to see what went wrong. The signs were immediately evident."After the race, she didn't look good," Bray said. "She lost a lot of weight, dropped off, and didn't eat for a while."It was a bitter pill to swallow, but one that also left the young trainer with vital insight."I vowed never to make the same mistake that I did in the Beverly Hills -- run her back too quick."In fact, Astra wasn't heard from the rest of the year. Bray kept her quiet, allowing the stately mare to mature at her own pace. The measured approach paid dividends when Astra was finally unveiled in mid-April and turned the Santa Barbara Handicap (gr. IIT) into a blowout.The Beverly Hills was equally as explosive. The lead, it turned out, fell into the hands of Happyanunoit and Polaire, who proceeded to put up an opening quarter in :25.95. Astra, as usual, was out a half-step slow, but she was soon bounding along eagerly in third behind Happyanunoit.It didn't take long for things to heat up, however. Sensing the counterfeit pace, Gary Stevens put Kalypso Katie in the hunt down the backstretch, a three-wide spurt that forced Brice Blanc to ask Happyanunoit for some early gas."Oh yeah, definitely," Blanc said later. "I had to make a little move to keep my position. I didn't want to sit back and get shut off after that."With Happyanunoit and Kalypso Katie locking horns up front, Astra swept by Polaire and moved in for the kill turning for home. The blast was instant. Astra ripped past Kalypso Katie, then left Happyanunoit behind strides later. With a quarter that shaded :23, Astra thundered to the finish in 1:59.61, winning by an expanding four lengths. Happyanunoit was a clear second over Kalypso Katie."Boy, she galloped out good, didn't she? Look at that," Bray marveled, watching the race tape back in his office. "That takes away any questions about a mile and three-eighths for the Breeders' Cup. I've said all along, the farther, the better." Which, in turn, leaves Bray and Astra's owners, the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, with an ideally spaced campaign. Bray will have eight weeks to refill the tank for a potential rematch with Happyanunoit in Arlington's Beverly D. Stakes (gr. IT) on Aug. 18. From there, a 10-week gap will put Astra front and center at Belmont for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT).
At this point, time is definitely on her side.Equibase)