A determined Laughing refused to relinquish the lead in the $588,000 Diana Stakes July 27 over the inner turf course at Saratoga Race Course, leading all the way for her first grade I victory in a terrific finish (VIDEO).
The race was billed as a showdown between 6-5 choice Centre Court and 3-2 pick Stephanie's Kitten, meeting for the fifth time. But under Jose Lezcano, there was no denying the Irish-bred Laughing, off at odds of nearly 7-1. She put away Centre Court near mid-stretch and held on gamely in the final yards to nip Dream Peace by a head with the late-charging Stephanie's Kitten a half-length back.
Laughing was no sure bet to even start in the Diana after also being entered in the Matchmaker Stakes (gr. IIIT) July 28 at Monmouth Park, where she won the Eatontown Handicap (gr. IIIT) in her most recent start June 29.
"She had the winter off and she came back well," said winning trainer Alan Goldberg, who saddled the 5-year-old Dansili mare for owner Richard Santulli. "She ran a pretty good race last time (in the Eatontown), first time out of the box. She came out of the race just great, so (Santulli) said, 'Let's take a shot.' "
The final time was 1:47.24 for nine furlongs over firm going.
Bred by Floors Farming and the Duke of Devonshire, Laughing is out of the Be My Chief mare Comic.
A stakes winner in her native Ireland, Laughing won for the fourth time in nine North American starts since arriving late in 2011. The bay mare's first stakes win stateside came in last year's Matchmaker.
The scratch of Dayatthespa left a field of just five older fillies and mares, with Laughing the likely pacesetter thanks to the defection. Grade I winner Centre Court, whose three-race winning streak was interrupted when fourth in the Longines Just a Game Stakes (gr. IT) on a yielding Belmont Park turf course June 8, was sent off a commanding favorite.
Laughing broke outward but went to the front unchallenged to open a one-length advantage, clipping off easy fractions of :24.24 and :49.19 when she was joined on the backstretch by Centre Court, ridden by Julien Leparoux. Centre Court seemed poised to go by as they completed six furlongs in 1:12.53, but Laughing was asked for more by Lezcano at the quarter pole and inched ahead again under right-handed urging in upper stretch.
Centre Court gave way near the furlong mark but Dream Peace, eased off the fence for the stretch run by Joel Rosario, was quickly on the attack. Laughing, though, would not be headed in deep stretch and she reached the wire just in front under right-handed encouragement from Lezcano.
"The trainer said, 'Break good, let her do her thing, and go from there.' When I asked her at the quarter pole, she took off again and gave me enough to win the race," Lezcano said.
Stephanie's Kitten, who dropped to the rear of the compact field soon after the start for John Velazquez, rallied four wide in the stretch but was still last inside the final furlong before flying home belatedly to get third. Samitar and Centre Court trailed.
"We had a good trip," said Leparoux of the beaten favorite. "I had her in a spot where she likes, she was just flat. She didn't really kick for me at the end; that's it. She was empty at the end."
Trainer Rusty Arnold blamed himself for Centre Court's tiring effort.
"Something has gone amiss. This isn't the same horse that I've had," he said. "I'm missing something, and it's my job to find it."
The victory, Laughing's sixth in 13 lifetime starts, was worth $360,000 and boosted her earnings to $668,855.
"Maybe we'll come back for the Ballston Spa (gr. IIT Aug. 24 at Saratoga) or wait for the mile and a quarter (gr. IT Flower Bowl Invitational Sept. 28) at Belmont," Goldberg said.
Carrying 118 pounds, Laughing paid $15.80, $6.70, and $3.50 as the second-longest shot in the field. Dream Peace, another Irish-bred trained by Chad Brown, returned $5.90 and $3.60 while combining for a $75 exacta. Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Just a Game winner Stephanie's Kitten paid $2.60 to show.