California shipper Evening Jewel took everything her rivals could throw at her but proved a determined front-running winner of the $400,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes (gr.I) (VIDEO) at Keeneland April 3.
Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, 5-1 shot Evening Jewel held off a late surge from outsider It's Tea Time to score the first grade I win by a California-bred horse this year. Last year's juvenile filly champion, She Be Wild, the 5-2 favorite in a closely matched field of eight 3-year-olds, finished third.
Evening Jewel won by a neck. The final time was 1:43.54 for the 1 1/16-mile test on Keeneland's Polytrack.
Now a leading contender for the April 30 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), Evening Jewel was coming off a nose loss to multiple grade I winner Blind Luck in Santa Anita's Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) Feb. 13. Blind Luck, one of the favorites for the Oaks, won the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park April 2.
Breaking from the far outside in the Ashland, Evening Jewel angled to the rail after getting the lead and opened up by one length over She Be Wild and Protesting while carving fractions of :24.16, :48.12, and 1:12.71. Rounding the turn, Evening Jewel repelled a bid from Protesting and increased her lead into the stretch. Leading by a length at the eighth pole over She Be Wild, she outlasted It's Tea Time in the final couple of strides under steady urging.
It's Tea Time, who advanced at the rail, closed in rapidly for Alan Garcia after angling out a bit in the final furlong. She finished three-quarters of a length ahead of She Be Wild, who evened out late under Jose Lezcano.
Desormeaux said the decision to go early was dictated largely by the field, with many fillies known for closing but few considered early pacesetters.
"We elected to take the lead at the start, and I thought the competition that I wanted to make sure and have the upper hand on was right inside of me,'" he said. "This little filly really took off a quarter mile away from the wire. What can I say? She's my Easter Bunny.''
"We were a little concerned when she went out to the front, but she held it,'' said co-owner Marilyn Braly of Indian Wells, Calif., who owns the horse with her husband, Tom. "She doesn't like to let anybody by her. She puts her ears out and her nose up, and away she goes.'"
The owners weren't the only nervous ones, Cassidy said.
``I never thought the wire was going to get there,'' he said.
Cassidy said he was leaning toward taking his filly to the Kentucky Oaks.
Protesting finished fourth, 3 3/4 lengths farther back. She was followed by Upperline, Apple Charlotte, Negligee and Beautician.
Evening Jewel has finished first or second in seven of her eight starts, including three victories. She won the California Breeders' Championship filly division at Santa Anita Dec. 27 before posting runner-up finishes in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III) and Las Virgenes. She earned $240,000 for the Ashland victory and has now banked $410,600 in her career.
Betty L. Mabee and Larry Mabee bred Evening Jewel, who sold for $8,000 at Keeneland's yearling sale in September 2008.
Cassidy said Evening Jewel, one of just three horses the Bralys own, provided them a career highlight.
"It's the best win they've ever had,'' Cassidy said. "They're beyond happy. Tomorrow or the next day it will sink in. Right now, it's surreal.''
Sent off as the fifth choice, Evening Jewel paid $12.60, $6.80 and $4.40 while keying a $207 exacta.
Alex G. Campbell Jr.'s It's Tea Time, facing winners for the first time for trainer Rusty Arnold, returned $15.40 and $6.80 as the longest shot on the board at 18-1.
"We think she's an Oaks horse,'' Arnold said. "It would be a big jump, but we think she's that kind of horse."
She Be Wild, bouncing back from her fifth-place effort in the Forward Gal Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park in her most recent start, was $3.40 to show.
"She hadn't run in a while (Jan. 31) and she needed the race,'' trainer Wayne Catalono said of She Be Wild. "I wanted to go to the lead, but Evening Jewel had the same idea, and she just ran so hard.''