Always a Princess sprinted away in the lane over Santa Anita's speed-favoring main track and easily captured the $150,000 El Encino Stakes (gr. II) to spoil the 2011 debut of odds-on choice Blind Luck Jan. 16 (VIDEO).
Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Arnold Zetcher's homebred Always a Princess rebounded from a fourth-place finish in the La Brea Stakes (gr. I) on opening day of the Santa Anita meet to defeat Blind Luck, a three-time grade I winner in 2010, by 3 1/2 lengths. The swiftly-run El Encino, at 1 1/16 miles over a fast track, was completed in 1:41.47.
Always a Princess appreciated the return to two turns in the El Encino. The daughter of Leroidesanimaux registered her first win since taking the 1 1/16-mile Indiana Oaks (gr. II) over a sloppy track at Hoosier Park in October.
Trainer Bob Baffert, absent again while on vacation to celebrate his 58th birthday this week, won his second grade II event of the weekend following a victory by Indian Firewater in the San Fernando Stakes a day earlier.
Blind Luck, expected to win a 2010 Eclipse Award as the nation's leading 3-year-old filly Jan. 17, never appeared comfortable in the El Encino as jockey Joel Rosario tried to get her going while racing from well off the pace in a field reduced to five 4-year-old fillies by three scratches. She shied from the whip a couple of times in the stretch. Blind Luck, refusing to pull up, dumped Rosario on the backstretch while galloping out following the race. The rider was apparently uninjured.
Dual grade I winner Champagne d'Oro, breaking from the rail, and Always a Princess went at it for the lead soon after the start, battling through hot fractions of :22.38, :45.41, and 1:08.72. Always a Princess, on the outside, began to get the better of her pace rival leaving the quarter pole and gradually lengthened her advantage in the stretch.
"We just didn’t want to go that fast, but you know, what are you going to do?," said Jim Barnes, Baffert's assistant, talking about the early pace of the El Encino. "Once we throw the jock up, it’s all up to them. I had to just let (Bejarano) make the right decision. They went fast, but we kept going.”
Blind Luck, stuck behind Malibu Pier and Fashion Trend on the bend, finally began to progress and was third at the head of the lane. While she managed to draw a little closer to the leader in the homestretch while taking over second from Champagne d'Oro, she never seriously threatened Always a Princess, who won under good handling from Bejarano while drifting inward late.
“I tried to be on the lead," said Bejarano, hoping to take advantage of the track's speed bias. "I sent my horse really hard in the beginning. When I saw (Joe Talamo on Champagne d’Oro) rush his horse, I decided to put my horse right next to him. I didn’t want to stay behind him, but next to him, because my horse has a stronger kick.
"When I saw (Champagne d'Oro) getting tired, I decided to give my horse a little breather before coming to the stretch. After that, I just let her run and she showed me a big kick. Last time (in the La Brea) I stayed too far back with her. It was only seven furlongs, and I know this horse is better with more distance.”
Blind Luck finished a clear second by 1 1/2 lengths over Fashion Trend, who rallied late for Victor Espinoza to edge Champagne d'Oro by a half-length for third. Second choice Malibu Pier faded badly to finish last, more than 20 lengths behind the winner.
Always a Princess, who shared top weight of 123 pounds with Blind Luck, won for the fourth time in eight lifetime starts and boosted her career earnings to $426,048 with the winner's share of $90,000. The El Encino was the second grade II victory of her career and her first triumph in four tries at Santa Anita. Her first two efforts over the track came on the Pro-Ride synthetic surface.
The winning chestnut filly is out of the British mare Gabriellina Giof, by Ashkalani.
Sent off as the third choice, Always a Princess paid $9.80, $3.40, and $2.80 and keyed a $17.60 exacta.
Blind Luck, making her first appearance since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, has now lost three races in a row, finishing second all three times. She returned $2.40 and $2.10 as the 7-10 choice.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer did not make the track an excuse for Blind Luck. “If she got beat it’s because of my training,” he said.
Fashon Trend, the longest shot in the field at 26-1 for the Robert and Beverly Lewis Trust and trainer Craig Dollase, was $3.40 to show.
It Tiz, Life Well Lived ,and Our Georgia all were scratched by their trainers.