Making her first start since suffering a knee chip while finishing sixth in the 2012 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), Garland Williamson's Hard Not to Like proved her quality with a half-length victory in the $100,000 Marshua's River Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream Park Jan. 5 (VIDEO).
The newly-turned 4-year-old Hard Spun filly made her return on the turf after an eight-month layoff at odds of 7-1 and finished 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:41.70 under jockey Joe Rocco Jr., beating out 5-2 second choice Channel Lady and 2-1 favorite Leading Astray.
It was also Hard Not to Like's first start since transferring to the barn of trainer Michael Matz. She was formerly trained by Gail Cox and beat colts in the 2011 Cup and Saucer Stakes over the all weather track at Woodbine
before trying the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs
, where she finished a credible fifth just three lengths behind Stephanie's Kitten
She only ran twice as a 3-year-old, finishing second in the Ashland (gr. I) on Polytrack at Keeneland
to launch her Oaks bid.
"I didn't know what to expect," Matz remarked. "I didn't know if Joe was going to get through there. She has that will to win. We've had plenty of works in her, but you never know. You've got to give credit to the horse."
In the Marshua's River, Hard Not to Like relaxed well in third on the inside, tracking early fractions of :24.81, :48.91, and 1:12.92 set by Frontside
and Joel Rosario. Frontside opened a four-length lead heading into the backside, with Channel Lady
and jockey Javier Castellano in second and Hard Not to Like on the rail.
Frontside still had the lead by a length heading for home, but Hard Not to Like was ready to pounce from her contending spot. Completing a mile in 1:35.95, Leading Astray was shuffled back on the inside and lost her chance at the win, lacking running room as Hard Not to Like closed strongly through an opening between the tiring frontrunner and the rail.
"She didn't break as sharp as I thought she would," Rocco said. "I thought she'd be laying second from the paper, but it worked out well. Halfway around the first turn I was able to get in behind Javier and draft behind him. When I saw Joe Bravo (on Chokurei
) pull his stick through to his left hand turning for home, I said 'Hopefully this is my hole,' and my filly ran right through it."
The winner eked out a narrow advantage heading down to the wire as Channel Lady gave her a battle on the outside. Leading Astray found the clear too late, 2 1/2 lengths back in third.
"She's a delight to train," Matz said of the winner. "She's really a nice horse to train. She's likes to train. She does everything the way you'd like. She trains like a stakes winner. We'd like to keep her for the rest of the year. We'll see if we can find something down here, maybe we can do so something towards the end of the meet."
"We got out too close to the pace and that's the reason we didn't finish too well," jockey Javier Castellano said of Channel Lady's runner-up finish. "I wish Fantasy of Flight was in the race as it would have helped us out to be off the pace and off the bridle. Unfortunately with the scratch we ended up too close and that's what cost us this race."
Hard Not to Like was bred in Ontario out of the Tactical Cat
mare Like a Gem
. The Marusha's River victory improved her record to 4-1 from eight starts, with earnings of $450,035.