Shug McGaughey sure loves these dead weekends in early spring to showcase his fillies. Last year, on April 1, during this same lull, the trainer grabbed what little headlines there were available by sending out Finder's Fee to win the seven-furlong Cicada Stakes (gr. III) for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct, the only graded stakes the entire weekend.
This year, on March 31, the Next Move Handicap (gr. III) for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up, was one of only four $100,000 races run over the weekend. And once again, it was McGaughey stealing the headlines, saddling the 4-year-old Atelier to a thrilling nose victory for owners Helen C. and Helen K. Groves and Dorothy Matz.
With a pair of scratches and a couple of late defections, only four horses went to the post, with Atelier the 7-10 favorite. The daughter of Deputy Minister was a consistent allowance horse for most of last year before finishing a distant fourth in her stakes debut, the grade I Gazelle Handicap. She followed that up with easy victories in a Belmont allowance race and the Turnback the Alarm Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct. Following a poor effort in the Falls City Handicap (gr. III) at Churchill Downs, she was off for 3 1/2 months before returning with an allowance score at Gulfstream Park.
In the Next Move, she faced Pompeii, winner of the Rare Treat Handicap (gr. III) on Feb. 19; Pentatonic, winner of the Affectionately Handicap (gr. III), who also placed in the grade I Beldame, Hempstead, and Personal Ensign last year; and the consistent stakes-placed filly Tax Affair, who showed tremendous improvement after being turned over to trainer Scott Lake last November.
The fans at Aqueduct got much more than they bargained for, as Atelier, Pompeii, and Tax Affair provided one of the most exciting stretch runs of the year. Tax Affair, the longest price on the board at 8-1, quickly opened a clear lead under Joe Bravo, who nursed the filly through fractions of :25.46, :49.97, and 1:13.81 over the muddy track. Edgar Prado was content to keep Atelier about two lengths back throughout, with Pompeii right behind, and the late-closing Pentatonic, at a big disadvantage because of her running style, another five to six lengths farther back.
Atelier went after Tax Affair nearing the head of the stretch, but found a tough competitor waiting for her. Tax Affair held on tenaciously, as Prado went to a series of right-handed whips on Atelier, who still could not get by her stubborn foe. Pompeii began closing in on them in the final furlong, but drifted out after jockey Javier Castellano switched to a left-handed whip. But she still kept coming, as Atelier finally stuck her head in front of Tax Affair in the final 70 yards. At the wire, it was Atelier by a nose over Pompeii, who had a head on Tax Affair. It was another seven lengths back to Pentatonic, who had no chance, considering the slow early pace and strong finish. With closing fractions of :24.08 and :12.76, Atelier was able to cover the 1 1/8 miles in a respectable 1:50.65.
McGaughey said he's considering the $300,000 Sixty Sails Handicap (gr. III) at Sportsman's Park on April 29 for Atelier's next start, which he hopes will set her up for the grade I Go for Wand and Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
"I was pleased with the way she ran today," McGaughey said. "The filly in front had an easy lead and when we got up to her she had a lot to say."
Prado said he was busy with Tax Affair and didn't notice Pompeii on the far outside until the final jumps. "This is a really nice filly, and she'll probably continue to get even better," he said. "She fought really hard in the stretch today."