The Sheepshead is a 1 3/8-mile test for fillies and mares on the inner turf. Eight have entered.
Among those expected to race for Pletcher was multiple grade I winner Panty Raid, but earlier in the week it was revealed that the millionaire daughter of Include had sustained an injury to her right foreleg that will keep her out of action for at least a couple of months. Panty Raid was expected to among the favorites.
Also bowing out earlier this week was grade I winner Bit of Whimsy. Trainer Barclay Tagg said the 4-year-old Distorted Humor filly would instead point towards the Just a Game Stakes (gr. IT) June 7.
Pletcher will still have a pair of formidable challengers in the Sheepshead Bay, an event he has won the past two years with the now-retired Honey Ryder. His top candidate is Lawrence Goichman’s J’ray. The 5-year-old Distant View mare is coming off a three-quarters of a length loss to current entrant Mauralakana in the April 26 Mairzy Doates Handicap at Calder Race Course, a race in which she led into the stretch.
J’ray also finished behind Mauralakana March 8 in the 1 1/8-mile Very One Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream Park, and was second in the Feb. 2 Suwannee River Handicap (gr. IIIT). Her last victory came in December when taking the My Charmer Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Calder. The chestnut mare has produced a 7-6-1 record from 19 starts and has a pair of graded stakes scores.
"The last time she ran was the first time we tried her at a longer distance,'' Pletcher said of the 1 3/8-mile Mairzy Doates. “She ran hard but she was second best on that day.''
Eibar Coa gets the call on Goichman’s New York homebred, who is out of the Darshaan mare Bubbling Heights.
Pletcher’s other chance is Ochre, a lightly-raced 4-year-old Red Ransom filly. Owned by Vinery Stables, Ochre enters off a commanding 6 1/2-length triumph in a 12-furlong allowance test April 18 on the Keeneland grass. The bay filly’s only blacktype effort was a fifth-place finish in the Caressing Handicap last November at Churchill Downs.
"She lacks seasoning, but she has lots of talent,'' Pletcher said. "She seems to appreciate the longer distance."
Ochre, who is 2-2-0 from five starts, will have Channing Hill aboard.
Robert Scarborough’s Mauralakana is the 119-pound heavyweight. She has been nearly flawless in her 5-year-old campaign, taking the Mairzy Doates and Very One, and falling 1 1/4 lengths short in the 1 1/2-mile Orchid Handicap (gr. IIIT) March 30 at Gulfstream. Interestingly, the winner that day was Hostess, who is also involved in this field.
Mauralakana is 8-3-3 from 23 lifetime starts. Trained by Christophe Clement, she has secured three graded/group III victories.
Hostess, who was third in last year’s Sheepshead Bay, turned the tables on Mauralakana in the Orchid after finishing seventh to her in the Very One. The Orchid was the 5-year-old Chester House filly’s first trip to the winner’s circle since scoring in allowance company in March 2007. In another interesting twist, Pletcher’s regular rider, John Velazquez, who has ridden both J’ray and Ochre in their careers, will be aboard Hostess.
"He gave her a brilliant ride last time, and seems to get the best out of her,'' trainer H. James Bond said. "They get along very well.''
Finally, also to be considered is Herboriste, a 5-year-old mare who has been involved with all these top contenders this year. Trained by Michael Matz, the daughter of Hernando was third in both the Orchid and Very One, missing in the latter by only a neck.
$150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 9, 5:15 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 3/8 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Leap in the Sun (KY), 114, Rajiv Maragh
2. Hostess (KY), 117, John R. Velazquez
3. Ochre (KY), 113, Channing Hill
4. Herboriste (GB), 116, Garrett K. Gomez
5. Rising Cross (GB), 115, Edgar S. Prado
6. J'ray (NY), 118, Eibar Coa
7. Flawless Treasure (KY), 115, Javier Castellano
8. Mauralakana (FR), 119, Kent J. Desormeaux