Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott sent multiple grade I winner Close Hatches to Oaklawn Park for the $200,000 Azeri Stakes (gr. II) with a goal in mind—if she liked the track, her next target would be the April 11 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I).
Bring it on.
Favored at odds of 3-5 and making her first start of the season off a runner-up finish in the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), Juddmonte's 4-year-old First Defence filly galloped wire to wire in the 1 1/16-mile test, taking rider Joel Rosario straight to the winner's circle (VIDEO). A 32-1 shot, Magic Union, finished 1 1/4 lengths back in second, while local contender Don't Tell Sophia was third, and 2013 Apple Blossom winner On Fire Baby finished fourth while also making her first start of 2014.
"It was a very good race for her first start of the year, and she was good enough to win after being off for a few months," Mott said. "I wasn't concerned about the track being wet/fast. She's a pretty handy filly and I felt like she could handle just about anything. She has the pedigree that indicates that a wet track wouldn't bother her.
"We are very pleased with the way she came back from the long layoff and won a race of this caliber against a quality field. You always wonder no matter how much training you do if you had her ready. You never know first out, but she was good enough to get the job done. Coming back for the Apple Blossom is a good possibility."
On Fire Baby ranged up from outside post 7 as the field was sent on their way, but Close Hatches had good early speed from the one hole and earned the advantage going into the clubhouse turn. Kept in the three path, the bay runner set early fractions of :23.39 and :47.43 while leading On Fire Baby to her outside and Magic Union on the rail.
Don't Tell Sophia, who was undefeated in 2014 with victories in the Pippin and Bayakoa stakes for the second straight year, made a big move four-wide from last to approach contention after three-quarters in 1:12.20, but coming off the turn for home Rosario had enough horse to hold off all challengers.
Close Hatches galloped through a mile in 1:37.82 and held sway under firm handling. Magic Union maintained her place for second, half a length ahead of Don't Tell Sophia, the 123-pound highweight. Final time was 1:44.34 on a wet/fast sealed track. The winner carried 120 pounds.
"She's a very nice filly and after the layoff that was a good race for her today," Rosario said ."She broke really sharp and took it the whole way. Bill told me probably the horse on the outside (On Fire Baby) was going to have a little speed and we would be close to the pace as well. When we passed the first turn she was going and I just let her do her thing."
Close Hatches paid $3.20, $3, and $2.40 while Magic Union returned $18.40 and $6.20. Don't Tell Sophia brought $2.60, while On Fire Baby, Dixie Strike, Flashy American, and Sister Ginger completed the order of finish.
Trainer John Sadler said he was pleased with Magic Union, a Dixie Union filly who broke her maiden at Oaklawn last year but moved to California when purchased by Hronis Racing.
"I am very happy," he said. "When you're (32-1) and you run second to a horse who was second in the Breeders' Cup (Distaff), I'm happy. She ran very well. She was inside the whole way and really ran hard. This made her homecoming to Oaklawn a good one. She's got a little bit of pedigree, so this does a lot for her value."
Bred in Kentucky by Millsec, Close Hatches has only been worse that second once in her life, a troubled seventh in last year's Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) after winning her first three including the Gazelle Stakes (gr. I). After the Oaks she was second in the Acorn Stakes (gr. I), then strung together victories in the Cotillion (gr. I) at Parx Racing and the Mother Goose (gr. I) by 7 1/4 lengths at Belmont Park.
In the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park, she finished 4 1/4 lengths back of champion Beholder, better than Authenticity, champion Royal Delta, and 2013 Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar.
Close Hatches' sire raced for Juddmonte and the legendary Bobby Frankel, capturing the Forego Handicap (gr. I), and was out of Juddmonte's multiple graded stakes winner Honest Lady. Close Hatches is the first foal out of the Juddmonte-bred Storm Cat mare Rising Tornado.
Her record now stands at six wins and two seconds from nine starts and earnings of $1,487,300.