When Grace Hallcrosses Union Avenue from Barn 57 en route to an engagement in the $600,000 Alabama Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 18, a plan masterminded by trainer Tony Dutrow could come closer to fruition with every one of her elegant strides.
After the Empire Maker filly came straight off a maiden victory at Delaware Park to take the Spinaway Stakes (gr. I) last summer at the Spa, Dutrow and owner Michael Dubb and his partners—Mike Caruso of Bethlehem Stable and Stuart Grant of the Elkstone Group—began plotting a steady course toward the kind of year-end honors that may be obtained only with a string of sterling performances; a championship-level season the likes of which Grace Hall is obligingly putting together.
"She has a good chance to be 3-year-old champion filly, and I've never had the opportunity to be involved with a horse that could be considered for a championship," Dubb remarked, standing on the Saratoga backside Aug. 13 after Grace Hall shipped in from Dutrow's Delaware base.
Those who saw the elegant bay runner's most recent score in the July 14 Delaware Oaks (gr. II), in which she inhaled her opponents with a four-wide move on the turn before drawing off to a 3 3/4-length victory under a hand ride from jockey Javier Castellano, or fans who watched her romp by 6 1/2 lengths in the Gulfstream Oaks (gr. II) back in March, would most likely agree Grace Hall is a highly-talented filly. But sandwiched between the two impressive wins was a third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) that set her back from securing the spot at the top of her division, and now her connections need an Alabama victory to prove just how special she is.
"We knew how important the Kentucky Oaks was, and we thought we got to the Kentucky Oaks the way we dreamed to, but we fell short," said Dutrow, while Dubb added that a track sealed before the race compromised the ability of come-from-behind runners like his.
"At that point the only thing we thought we could do to salvage the possibility of her being champion 3-year-old filly was to win the Alabama," Dutrow continued. "We're coming into the Alabama the way we want to, and we are just so excited about the way our filly is right now, but we know that we must win the Alabama to be considered the 3-year-old filly champion."
Grace Hall turned in her final pre-race move for the 1 1/4-mile race Aug. 12, breezing four furlongs at Delaware Park in :49.40. In the Alabama she'll have another matchup with Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can, who comes in off a third-place finish in the June 23 Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park, as well as with Via Villaggio, who was clearly second-best in the Delaware Oaks. But new challenges will arise from TVG Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) victress Questing, Mother Goose winner Zo Impressive, Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II) winner In Lingerie, and Iowa Oaks (gr. III) champ Uptown Bertie.
"The Coaching Club was a big race, the Kentucky Oaks was a big race, and this is a big race," Dutrow said. "You have four grade I winners anticipated to be running, and the winner of this race will make a bold statement as to the division."
The connections have faith in their plan. For those who would criticize a lack of grade I credentials this year for Grace Hall, Dubb had this to say: they've been keeping their eyes on the prize.
"Tony has taught me that the objective with a 2-year-old is not its maiden win or even necessarily its 2-year-old season; the objective is to set up for a good 3-year-old season," he explained. "She's by Empire Maker, who didn't peak until he won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). That was June of his 3-year-old season, this is August of hers, and she's just getting better and better and the potential's unlimited.
"After the Oaks we watched a whole bunch of the 3-year-old filly grade I races come up in a way we found fairly weak, and we were sitting with Grace Hall in the barn thinking, 'Man, we want to be in these things,' " he went on. "But our objective was the Alabama and now we have a fresh horse for the Alabama. She still has to do her part, but we have every reason to believe she's fresh and fit."
Bred in Kentucky by Darley out of the Ezzoudmare Season's Greetings, Grace Hall has never finished worse than third. Asked to reveal the secret to her record, 5-2-1 from eight starts for earnings of $1,140,000--including a runner-up finish last year to My Miss Aurelia in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and only that maiden effort outside of stakes company--her trainer summed it up succinctly.
"She's a pretty easy read," he said. "She runs. Not too much gets in her way, no matter where she's raced. Almost all her races are against some of the best in her generation, and she consistently performs excellently. She's a very classy filly."