Twice during the running of the Breeders' Cup Distaff - Presented by Nextel (gr. I), sophomore filly Ashado pushed around older rivals like she was the toughest kid on the playground.
But Ashado has never been your average, everyday kind of horse. Plucked out of the Keeneland September yearling sale two years ago because of her "athletic potential," she has grown into a bruiser of a filly who shows up every time. She has yet to finish off the board in 14 starts and now, with a commanding win in the 11/8-mile Distaff, she casts a long shadow that stretches beyond this year's sophomore filly division.
On each occasion when called upon to take action in the Distaff by jockey John Velazquez, both times she easily flicked her rivals aside, charged ahead, and never looked back on her way to a track record-setting performance to start the World Thoroughbred Championships at Lone Star Park early in the afternoon of Oct. 30. She had places to go and people to see. A lot of people.
There to greet her in the winner's circle was a sizable and boisterous entourage headed by owners Jack and Laurie Wolf of Starlight Stables, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin.
And there, too, was trainer Todd Pletcher, who has sculpted Ashado from a very good grade I winner a year ago into a sure-fire champion. In the process, he picked up the first Breeders' Cup victory of his career. Pletcher would quickly earn his second a little more than a hour later in the Sprint (gr. I) with Speightstown, who gave Velazquez his sixth Breeders' Cup triumph.
Bloodstock agent Barry Berkelhammer recalls Ashado's "athletic potential" when he picked her out of the Taylor Made Sales Agency consignment at the 2002 Keeneland September sale. After putting the $170,000 Starlight Stables purchase through the program at his AbraCadabra Farms in Florida, Berkelhammer sent the daughter of Saint Ballado--Goulash, by Mari's Book, to Pletcher and told him, "I hope you like her, because this is the best that it gets."
Ashado had a great juvenile campaign on the East Coast, but had to ship west to take on Halfbridled in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). She ran an incredibly strong race to be second at 13-1. She traveled back to New York to win the Demoiselle (gr. II) in November before calling it a season.
Given a little time to recoup at Palm Meadows training center in Florida, Ashado returned to crush a good field in the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II) in New Orleans March 6. She then closed steadily in the short stretch at Keeneland to just miss catching the sprint-happy Madcap Escapade in the 11/16-mile Ashland Stakes (gr. I). That was the perfect setup for her major score of the spring, a commanding 11/4-length win in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) in the slop at Churchill Downs.
Given eight weeks off, Ashado returned in the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I), but fell 21/2 lengths shy of Stellar Jayne. She bounced back to take the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) in a romp, but then ran a disappointing third in the Alabama Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga behind Society Selection and Stellar Jayne.
"She was a champion in the making, even before the Oaks," Berkelhammer said after the Distaff. "But she had to earn it; she had to step up. I thought whichever 3-year-old filly finished in front of the other would be named champion."
The 3-year-old contingent in the Distaff towered over the older rivals and the Eclipse Award was hanging in the balance. Ashado had her crendentials, but so did Irving and Marjorie Cowan's Society Selection, who had two grade I wins at Saratoga to her credit and a game second behind older star Sightseek in the Oct. 9 Beldame Stakes (gr. I). Spendthrift Farm, Chuck Kidder, Nancy Cole, and Nick Strong's Stellar Jayne also had two grade I wins on the year, beating Ashado in the Mother Goose and then winning the Gazelle Stakes.
Thinking Breeders' Cup as the year-end championship target, Pletcher and Ashado's co-owners came up with a plan for her that was a little unconventional. Instead of taking on older horses, they opted for the Cotillion Handicap (gr. II) for 3-year-old fillies at Philadelphia Park.
"We talked about it a lot," Pletcher said of the decision to go in the Oct. 2 Cotillion. "I very strongly wanted a race that was four weeks out (from the Breeders' Cup). After the Alabama, there weren't too many alternatives that we liked except the Cotillion. I was concerned about the weight and the shipping to Philadelphia Park, but I knew Sightseek loved Belmont."
The 5-year-old Sightseek closed out her own stellar career in the Beldame at Belmont, going out undefeated in seven starts over Belmont's main track. Society Selection and Storm Flag Flying would chase her home.
Meanwhile, at Philly Park, Ashado cruised by 23/4 lengths as the 1-5 favorite while under top weight of 124 pounds.
Pletcher and Team Ashado had what they needed: a confident, fresh, fit horse for the Distaff. What they wanted was a win.
"We look at the (Ragozin) sheets, and the 3-year-old fillies this year are very, very good," Pletcher said. "She might have looked like she had an easy win in the Cotillion, but she ran a lifetime top in the Cotillion. We felt she fit well with all the older mares out there."
Pletcher's barn crew had assistance in Texas from legendary Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr., who now has the lucrative profession of being Velazquez' agent. He flew into Dallas after visiting his native Puerto Rico, but had lost his wallet during his stay and had trouble getting through airport security. He was eventually allowed to board his flight and get to Texas, where he helped out by getting aboard Ashado for her morning gallops. As Breeders' Cup eve approached, Cordero was still working his cell phone trying to secure a copy of his birth certificate. At least he had his exercise rider's license that had his picture on it.
Both Pletcher and Velazquez are on the way to finding their own spots in racing's Hall of Fame someday. Cordero's compassion for both men shone through not only in the mornings but come race day as well. In the winner's circle, Cordero had tears in his eyes for his client and for Pletcher.
"That showed a lot of emotion and happiness that Todd was able to win a Breeders' Cup race," Saylor said.
The whole complexion of the Distaff changed four days before event day when owner Michael Paulson and trainer D. Wayne Lukas opted to run the brilliant Azeri against males in the Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I).
Suddenly, Ashado was the likely favorite, along with Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps' 4-year-old Storm Flag Flying, who was gearing up for an attempt to become the first winner of two different Breeders' Cup races. In 2002, she won the Long John Silver's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies on her way to an Eclipse Award. Trainer Shug McGaughey, fresh off entering the Hall of Fame this August thanks to the likes of Storm Flag Flying's dam, Juvenile Fillies winner My Flag, and her dam, 1988 Distaff winner Personal Ensign, feared Ashado most once Azeri moved to the Classic.
"It's going to give us a better chance, no doubt," McGaughey said of Azeri's defection during the week. "Naturally, we'll have a better chance to win. I've been watching Ashado, and she's good."
Another Hall of Famer fretting over Ashado was Allen Jerkens, the trainer of Society Selection.
The Ashado triad had mixed feelings about Azeri's defection.
Both Saylor and Martin wanted to face the 2002 Horse of the Year and two-time defending champion older female.
"There was something in me that wanted to run against Azeri," Saylor said. "I was disappointed."
"I wanted to race against her," Martin said. "Azeri was going to make sure there was good speed in the race."
However, the savvy-handicapping Wolf was pleased with Azeri's departure.
"Anytime you can move a 3-5 shot out of a race and you're the 2-1 favorite, that's an advantage," he said. "I welcomed the challenge, but I was pleased when she went against the boys."
Pletcher, a Lukas assistant from 1989-96 before striking out on his own, knew his boss well. "I was getting the vibe from Wayne that she was going in the Classic," he said. "We can speculate, but who cares now that we got the trophy? We get the same check."
There was rain Breeders' Cup eve and plenty of speculation about the track and which horses would handle it best. Ashado's powerful effort on a muddy surface in the Kentucky Oaks boded well for her chances.
Lone Star's main track was listed as "good" for the Distaff as bright sunshine bathed the Ashado team in the paddock. They were an easy crew to spot, with most of the women adorned with neon lime green and pink caps with "ASHADO BABE" across the front.
Jack Wolf, a retired hedge fund manager in Atlanta, is originally from Louisville, Ky. He and Laurie got into racing in 2000 with the purchase of six yearlings. Among that group was eventual grade I winner and 2002 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) favorite Harlan's Holiday. Martin, president of Adams Electric Co., lives in Greensboro, N.C. Saylor is managing director of the investment banking firm Chadwick, Saylor & Co., based in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
When the gates opened in the Distaff, Ashado actually out-broke the 11-horse field from her inside post. But as they passed the stands the first time, Velazquez needed plenty of arm strength to rein back his big filly to cede the lead to Tamweel, who figured to dictate the pace. Tamweel, with Rene Douglas up, took the lead and set a :22.93 opening quarter as they rounded the first bend. The French-based filly, Nebraska Tornado, a surprising 7-1 at post time, was close in attendance with Indy Groove to her outside. Ashado stuck to the inside and tucked in nicely behind those three.
Storm Flag Flying, sent off at 9-2, broke poorly from post seven, and jockey Jerry Bailey had no choice but to guide Storm Flag Flying to the rail, where she was shuffled to the back of the pack. It was not where Bailey and McGaughey had preferred to be. Parked outside while near the back of the pack was Stellar Jayne.
Down the backstretch, Velazquez kept a tight hold on Ashado as Tamweel was tracked by Nebraska Tornado and Indy Groove through a half in :46.70. Island Fashion eased up to her outside, boxing her in for a bit as they neared the far turn. Storm Flag Flying was on the rail, too, but behind Ashado. It was as the field entered the far turn that Ashado showed her might and determination for the first time.
With a subtle prompting from Velazquez, Ashado didn't squeeze between Nebraska Tornado and the rail, she shouldered her way past the 4-year-old Storm Cat filly, pushing her aside with a strong jolt. That instantly put Ashado up in the race and in the garden spot right behind Tamweel, Indy Groove, and Island Fashion, who was moving well while clear on the outside. The six furlongs clicked off in 1:10.50.
As the leaders were coming out of the turn, Ashado exerted her dominance, bulling her way past Indy Groove and taking dead aim on Tamweel and Island Fashion. In doing so, Ashado pushed Indy Groove and Mark Guidry to the outside, opening up some room for Storm Flag Flying. By then, Ashado was working her way between Tamweel and Island Fashion to take command.
She opened up in early stretch, getting the mile in 1:35.48. Stellar Jayne was charging on the outside and Storm Flag Flying was still looking for room.
Ashado and Velazquez were clear to the line as they cruised to the wire 11/4 lengths ahead in a track-record time of 1:48.26 over a surface several jocks described as "slick" and "gooey."
Storm Flag Flying lived up to her name with a strong late run, but ran out of room, closing well for second. Stellar Jayne, while wide for most of the race, ran good enough for third, a neck behind Storm Flag Flying. Tamweel held for fourth, with Island Fashion fifth.
While it was the end of the line for Storm Flag Flying (she was to be sent to Claiborne Farm Nov. 1 for a future date with A.P. Indy), it's likely Ashado will remain in training in 2005. Pletcher said he would send her to Palm Meadows for 35-45 days of down time before returning to the track.
While Jack Wolf joked that Pletcher now "owes me for everything," for his first Breeders' Cup winner, Wolf can thank both Berkelhammer and Pletcher for many of his bright moments in a relatively few years.
"We know we are placed in the right spot and the horse is going to do what it's supposed to do," Wolf said of Pletcher's training. Getting to the winner's circle is what Ashado does best. The crowd waiting for her was another pushover.