Payton d'Oro, looking for her first win since returning from nearly a year's layoff in March, leads a closely-matched field for the $250,000 Ruffian Invitational (gr. I) at Saratoga July 31.
The Ruffian offers an opportunity for any of the seven older fillies and mares entered in the 1 1/8-mile main track event to collect a first grade I win. It is also part of the Breeder's Cup Challenge series and guarantees the winner a spot in the starting gate for the BC Ladies Classic (gr. I) Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs. The featured event on the Saratoga program, along with the $150,000 Fourstardave Handicap (gr. IIT), has a 5:30 p.m. EDT post time as the ninth race.
With six wins from 17 starts and earnings of $498,035, Mike Pressley's Payton d'Oro is the most accomplished runner in the Ruffian, though her last graded stakes win for trainer Larry Jones came in the 2009 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II) at Pimlico. The 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro mare drew the top weight assignment of 116 pounds, though there is only a two-pound spread across the field.
“She’s doing well, she’s sure training well, and to tell you the truth, the race is kind of wide open,” said Jones. “I’m looking forward to running her.”
Payton d'Oro has had three starts since returning from her layoff, posting a pair of seconds and a third. She comes off a runner-up effort in the 1 1/16-mile Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) June 18, finishing three lengths behind Awesome Maria. Awesome Maria, who suffered a condylar fracture of her left foreleg earlier this month and will miss the rest of the year, would have been the heavy favorite in the Ruffian.
Gabriel Saez is back aboard Payton d' Oro, who breaks from post 5.
The only other graded stakes winner in the field is Bobby Flay's Super Espresso, a $1.1 million auction purchase who also received 116 in the Ruffian. She defeated Payton d'Oro by three-quarters of a length in a good stretch duel to capture the Allaire du Pont Stakes (gr. III) at 11-1 odds at Pimlico May 21. Todd Pletcher conditions the 4-year-old filly, who is also by Medaglia d'Oro.
Super Espresso returned to run third in Belmont's five-horse Ogden Phipps, finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind Payton d'Oro. Super Espresso also won a stakes over a sloppy inner dirt track at Aqueduct in February. She is three-for-six in 2011 with a pair of thirds, her only poor performance coming in the Bewitch Stakes (gr. IIIT) on a yielding Keeneland turf course April 28. Ramon Dominguez, who was aboard in the du Pont, is reunited here.
“Her last couple of races were good,” Pletcher said. “I think it’s a matter of finally figuring out how to run. The distance has helped, but I think she’s kind of a late-developing filly. She’s just getting a little better with age.”
Payton d'Oro was made the slight 2-1 morning line favorite over Super Espresso, who was pegged at 3-1.
Briland Farm's speedy Absinthe Minded faded to last in the Phipps after setting a quick pace. Trained by D. Wayne Lukas, the 4-year-old Quiet American filly missed by just a head to Awesome Maria in Belmont's one-mile Shuvee Handicap (gr. II) prior to that in another big front-running effort.
Absinthe Minded won the Bayakoa Stakes by four lengths at Oaklawn Park in February and followed that with third-place efforts at Oaklawn behind the victorious Havre de Grace in both the Azeri Stakes (gr. III) and Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I). She set the pace in each race.
Tiz Miz Sue, owned by Carol Ricks and trained by Steve Hobby, ran second to Havre de Grace in the June 11 Obeah Stakes (gr. III) in her most recent try June 11 at Delaware Park. The 4-year-old daughter of Tiznow won Delaware's Winter Melody Stakes a month earlier.
Bruce Lunsford's Distorted Legacy has back-to-back victories heading into the Ruffian for trainer Angel Penna Jr., including an overnight stakes at Belmont in her most recent start July 1.
Dynazaper, trained by Bill Mott for Lakland Farm, comes off a 9 1/4-length laugher over four rivals in an optional claiming allowance race at one mile June 8.
Ask the Moon was supplemented to the field after being claimed for $75,000 out of an optional allowance June 15 for Farnsworth Stables. The Malibu Moon mare, now trained by Marty Wolfson, ran third behind Distorted Legacy in her first start for her new connections.
$250,000 Ruffian Invitational (gr. I, Race 9, 5:30 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Ask the Moon (MD), L Saez, 114, M D Wolfson
2. Super Espresso (KY), R A Dominguez, 116, T A Pletcher
3. Absinthe Minded (KY), R Albarado, 115, D W Lukas
4. Distorted Legacy (KY), R Maragh, 114, A J Penna Jr.
5. Payton d'Oro (KY), G Saez, 116, J L Jones
6. Dynazaper (KY), J R Velazquez, 114, W I Mott
7. Tiz Miz Sue (KY), J Rocco Jr., 115, S Hobby