Over the past three months Awesome Maria has firmly established herself as one of the top older females in the country. On June 18 at Belmont Park, she will take a shot at earning her first grade I win when she faces a small but solid field in the $250,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap.
Perfect in three starts this season, E. Paul Robsham Stables’ Awesome Maria will carry top weight of 124 pounds in the 1 1/16-mile Phipps, which is the second of two graded stakes on Belmont’s 10-race card. The $100,000 Hill Prince (gr. IIIT) for 3-year-old turf milers is also on the docket.
Awesome Maria, the 7-5 morning-line choice, will face two-time grade I winner Life At Ten
, who won this race a year ago, and recent graded stakes winner Super Espresso
—both stablemates trained by Todd Pletcher—and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (gr. I) winner Unrivaled Belle
With three of the six starters in the field, Pletcher will try to win the Phipps for the third time in the last seven years. He also won in 2005 with Ashado.
Awesome Maria, by Maria’s Mon out of the Awesome Again mare Discreetly Awesome, has been flawless this season. She won the Sabin (gr. III) by nearly five lengths and the Rampart (gr. III) by eight lengths—both at Gulfstream Park—before holding off Phipps entrant Absinthe Minded
by a head in the Shuvee Handicap (gr. II) May 21 at Belmont. The gray/roan filly has won twice in four starts at Belmont, including the Matron (gr. II) as a juvenile.
“She has trained great over this surface since (the Shuvee),” said assistant trainer Jonathan Thomas. “She’s had a series of nice works, so she is getting over the track well. She’s coming into the race in great shape.”
John Velazquez will have the mount on Awesome Maria, who is 6-3-1 from 11 starts with earnings of $692,375.
Candy DeBartolo’s Life At Ten, freshened following a poor performance in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, has made two starts in 2011, finishing second by five lengths in a Gulfstream optional claimer on April 10 and checking in third, defeated by 9 1/4 lengths, in the Allaire duPont Distaff (gr. III) at Pimlico on May 21.
“Looking at her last work (four furlongs in 47.93 at Belmont on June 5), it was exceptional,” said Thomas. “It was a very sharp, good work for her. I think we’re back at a place where she has had some of her lifetime best races."
Thomas is hopeful Life At Ten (10-1) will move forward in her third race off the layoff, even if her duPont performance was a cut below her best efforts.
“We thought she was training well going into that race down there,” said Thomas. “Tactically, she had no excuse. Physically, she came back fine. If anything, it was more of a head-scratcher.”
Cornelio Velasquez will ride Life At Ten, who won the Phipps by 2 3/4 lengths last year as part of a six-race win streak. She also won the Beldame (gr. I) over the Belmont main track.
Super Espresso (8-1), owned by Bobby Flay, is the final part of Pletcher’s trio. She opened her 4-year-old campaign with three starts over the inner track at Aqueduct, winning an entry-level allowance in January and the Sky Beauty overnight stakes in February, and finishing third in the Am Capable, another overnight stakes, in March. Seventh on turf in the Bewitch (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland on April 28, she rebounded with a three-quarter-length triumph in the duPont Distaff (gr. III) when switched back to dirt.
“The biggest part has been her physical maturation over the past eight months,” said Thomas. “She’s a big filly, and she has grown into herself. She has gotten a lot of confidence from her runs, and we’ve kind of figured her style out. She’s a very athletic, very sound, good-minded filly.”
Unrivaled Belle, trained by Bill Mott for Gary Seidler and Peter Vegso, is winless in two starts this season after scoring the BC Ladies Classic in November. She finished a distant third behind Awesome Maria in the Rampart and then fell a half-length short of Blind Luck in La Troienne (gr. II) at Churchill Downs on May 6 in her most recent start. The 5-year-old mare was runner-up to Life At Ten in last year’s Phipps.
“She has done wonderfully since (the La Troienne),” said Leana Williford, assistant to Mott. “She’s breezing and doing well. All systems are ‘go.’ She has run very well here, but she runs well everywhere. It’d be nice to get a pace in front of her and have her settle.”
Kent Desormeaux will ride Unrivaled Belle. She will carry 122 pounds as the 2-1 morning-line second choice.
Rounding out the field is Payton d'Oro
, who was second to Super Espresso in the DuPont Distaff.
$250,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I, Race 9, 5:17 p.m.), Fillies and Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/16 Miles (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Super Espresso (KY), D Cohen, 117, T A Pletcher
2. Absinthe Minded (KY), E Castro, 116, D W Lukas
3. Awesome Maria (KY), J R Velazquez, 124, T A Pletcher
4. Life At Ten (KY), C H Velasquez, 117, T A Pletcher
5. Unrivaled Belle (KY), K J Desormeaux, 122, W I Mott
6. Payton d'Oro (KY), G Saez, 116, J L Jones