Love and Pride, staked to a daylight lead in the stretch by John Velazquez, denied the late bid of 3-5 pick Royal Delta to earn her first grade I victory in the $600,000 Personal Ensign Stakes Aug. 26 at Saratoga Race Course (VIDEO).
Trained by Todd Pletcher for Green Hills Farm, 4-year-old Love and Pride produced a 10-1 upset while racing without blinkers.
"She's a filly that's kind of hinted she had one of those in her, and she's been real tricky to ride," Pletcher said. "She doesn't respond well to an aggressive ride. Johnny gets along with her really well, and she showed up with a big performance today."
The Personal Ensign was contested at 1 1/8 miles this year after being a 1 1/4-mile race from 1995-2011. The race, a "Win & You're In" Breeders' Cup Challenge event, guarantees the connections of Love and Pride a starting slot in this year's Ladies Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park Nov. 2.
In an eventful race, Royal Delta, last year's champion 3-year-old filly, washed out in the moments before the start. And once the gates flew open, second choice It's Tricky, breaking from the rail, landed on her nose while stumbling badly in the first couple of strides.
Love and Pride, forwardly placed on the outside of Brushed by a Star, took command in the lane and finished tenaciously to repel the late charge of Royal Delta by a half-length. It's Tricky, who recovered from her horrendous start to somehow challenge for the lead in upper stretch, finished third, 1 1/2 lengths behind the winner. The final time was 1:49.22 on a fast track.
T N T Stud bred Love and Pride, a daughter of A.P. Indy out of the Storm Cat mare Ile de France.
Love and Pride was coming off a fourth-place effort in the Delaware Handicap (gr. II) after setting a quick pace July 21 at Delaware Park, finishing 9 1/2 lengths behind the victorious Royal Delta. The dark bay or brown filly captured Delaware's Obeah Stakes (gr. III) prior to that for her first graded score.
Pletcher earned his second win in the Personal Ensign, following Fleet Indian in 2006. He said Love and Pride went too fast while leading the DelCap, so the decision was made to remove blinkers.
"The team at Delaware did a great job with her, had her ready to go, and training over that deeper surface, I think, may have paid off today," Pletcher said. "Michael Dilger, my Delaware assistant, and I had about a 10-second conversation, and we figured we had nothing to lose (by taking off the blinkers). We were just trying to get her to turn off a little bit."
Love and Pride broke best from post 3 and settled in second just off the flank of Brushed by a Star, who provided a quick tempo while carving fractions of :24.16, :47.69, and 1:11.38. Love and Pride drew even with the pacesetter midway on the far turn and came away with the lead. But she was quickly challenged along the inside by It's Tricky.
"She broke on top and I saw Corey Nakatani (jockey of Brushed by a Star) wanted to go to the lead so I got off them a little bit," Velazquez said. "I had her in a pretty decent spot and the other horse kept pushing me to the outside and she got a little more aggressive. I just waited there until we got to the three-eighths pole, and when I saw (It's Tricky) get through on the inside, it was time to go and she responded right away."
Love and Pride finally got control after dueling to the three-sixteenths pole with It's Tricky. She led that one by one length at the furlong mark and held forth gamely under strong pressure from Velazquez while weakening as Royal Delta closed in. The final eighth of a mile was run in a slow :13.39.
"She does not like the whip," Velazquez said. "I was in front and I thought maybe I'll just show it to her and keep her mind to running, and it was a mistake. I showed it to her and she went back to the left lead and she started waiting instead of completely going. I learned something new; don't show it to her."
"When Johnny showed her the stick the first time, she jumped to her left lead, and that's kind of always been her, so he just kind of had to pick her up and hand ride her aggressively from there," Pletcher said.
Royal Delta appeared to be backing out of the race at mid-stretch after advancing into contention on the bend. But she showed good courage to make another run at the winner while also tiring in the final furlong.
"I'm not going to make a lot of excuses," said Mike Smith, who rode Royal Delta. "The winner ran a bang-up race. We got outrun. If I had to do it all over again, I would have rode her a little differently and got brave early.
"I would have moved earlier. In doing that, though, I could have tackled the long shot and make myself a little vulnerable for a closer. We did that a little bit the last time, and it didn't seem like the thing to do. In hindsight, it kind of was."
It's Tricky finished one length behind the runner-up while holding off Tiz Miz Sue by a half-length for third.
"My filly really stumbled breaking from the gate," said Eddie Castro, who rode It's Tricky. "I lost my position, but she ran awesome today. She tried so hard. After the stumble, I didn't think she would do anything, but she really tried hard. Sometimes that happens; no good luck today."
Love and Pride, now 6-2-4 in 15 lifetime starts, banked $360,000 for the victory, pushing her career total to $775,760.
She carried 114 pounds, 10 fewer than the top-weighted Royal Delta, and paid $22, $6.70, and $3.50. Royal Delta, whose two-race win streak came to and end for trainer Bill Mott, returned $2.20 and $2.10. The exacta was worth $47.60. Its Tricky paid $2.40 to show.
Tiz Miz Sue was followed by Brushed by a Star and R Gypsy Gold in the field of six.