Like any worthwhile Broadway production, the 2001 version of "Perfect Sting: The Sequel" took its show on the road for tune-ups on April 14 in an effort to iron out any kinks in the act before hitting the Great White Way. And, somewhat to the surprise of the show's director -- trainer Joe Orseno -- the kinks were few.
"I spent most of the past week with a pretty good case of nerves," admitted Orseno, after Perfect Sting ran her record to 14 wins from 20 starts with a two-length victory in Hialeah's Black Helen Handicap (gr. IIT). "I've seen so many Eclipse Award winners come back and not win, so the pressure is really on."
Besides the obvious -- the champion turf female returning to race at age five after a layoff of more than five months, even when in the trainer's words, "It would have been very easy to retire her" -- Orseno worried about the number of starters his mare would face. Initially nine runners were entered to face her; by post time that had been pared to four. "I think quite a few of them said there might be an easier spot," laughed the trainer.
Competition, however, wasn't the reason for the late scratch of Gaviola, who handled 3-year-old filly turf runners last year as deftly as Perfect Sting handled their older counterparts; trainer Billy Turner noticed the four-time graded stakes winner coughing on the morning of the Black Helen. "I tried to ignore the first few," he said. "But I couldn't run her."
Among the four who did face last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) winner was Stronach Stables' Cherry Flambe, who was coupled, at 1-5 in the wagering, with Perfect Sting to ensure an honest pace. But even Orseno was not prepared for the way the race transpired: Cherry Flambe, joined by Dinner Pardner, took off as if in a match race. With four of the nine furlongs remaining, that duo had left their three tightly bunched competitors 15 lengths in arrears. Even as they trailed, Eibar Coa, taking Jerry Bailey's usual seat in Perfect Sting's irons, was working hard to keep one competitor especially occupied.
"I knew Spook Express was the one we had to beat to the top of the stretch," Coa said. Spook Express was a two-time graded stakes winner at the Gulfstream meet.
"Sting was carrying her the whole way," said Spook Express' trainer Tom Skiffington, uncomplainingly, of Coa's aggressive work to keep his mare tightly tucked.
Heading to the turn, the trailing trio had cut into the margin significantly. With Spook Express having swung outside and the ever-vigilant Coa keeping Perfect Sting's rear directly in front of his rival's, Clearly a Queen had snuck through along the hedge and taken a short lead near the eighth pole. It was to be short-lived, too, once Coa straightened away the rusty champion. Perfect Sting edged away from Clearly a Queen, with Spook Express another length back in third. The final time was 1:47.17.
"She's truly a champion," admired Orseno in the winner's circle after Hialeah's feature for the second consecutive Saturday, following Thunder Blitz's Flamingo Stakes (gr. III) score. "I was thinking about bringing her back in the Hialeah Breeders' Cup Handicap (on March 25), but she wasn't quite ready."
Team Perfect Sting is now ready for what they hope will be a rarity: a sequel that surpasses the original. Orseno, Andy Stronach, and farm manager Danny Vella have established a schedule that calls for four or five more races, with such grade I tests as the Flower Bowl Handicap and the Beverly D. Stakes on tap, before a career-ending run at Horse of the Year honors.
"We're going to try running against the boys somewhere along the line," revealed Orseno, mentioning possible occasions including the Man o' War Handicap (gr. IT) and Canadian International (Can-IT). "Then we'll wind up in the Breeders' Cup."
Which of the events at Belmont Park, though, remains undecided. While a return engagement in the Filly & Mare Turf is obvious, the trainer said, "If she has a chance at Horse of the Year, there would be no question that we'd try the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT)."
Broadway bound, indeed.