Bushfire appears to be the one to beat as she returns from a two-month layover in the grade I, $250,000 Gazelle Stakes at Belmont Park Sept. 9. Standing in her way is Pine Island, recent winner of the grade I Alabama Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
Trained by Eddie Kenneally, Bushfire has already won three grade I stakes this year: the Ashland at Keeneland, and the Acorn and Mother Goose at Belmont. In all three races, she was able to use her sharp early speed to be a pace factor throughout.
While Bushfire's main goal is the Breeder's Cup Distaff (gr. I) Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs, Kenneally was quick to point out he is not using the nine-furlong Gazelle as a prep for his star filly.
In the Mother Goose, Bushfire beat a young and inexperienced Pine Island, who was making only her third lifetime start that day and first in a stakes. While Pine Island raced and progressed throughout the summer, Kenneally elected to give Bushfire a breather.
"We wanted to freshen her up," Kenneally said of the daughter of Louis Quatorze
. "It was a designed break. With the hot weather and what she has accomplished, we thought it would be best to have a fresh filly for the fall races. She runs very well fresh, and depending on the outcome on Saturday, I could even elect to train her up to the Distaff."
Pine Island's Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey is looking forward to a rematch with Bushfire. "She is just a lot more experienced now," he said. "She has come a long way from earlier this summer. Each race she gets better and better and learns more."
While the Alabama was two-turns and the Gazelle will be only one turn, it is not the biggest concern for McGaughey.
"To be honest, I am more concerned about coming back in three weeks than I am about cutting her back (to one-turn)," he said of the daughter of Matlacha Pass, who is owned by Phipps Stable. "She ran a big race in the Alabama, so I hope she bounces back. She has been training great, so that should help."
Joseph Allen's Teammate is hoping to use her strong second to Pine Island in the Alabama as a spring-board to a late season charge. Earlier this summer, Teammate twice finished far behind Bushfire in the Acorn and Mother Goose.
"She ran a big race in the Alabama," said Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens. "It would have been nice to see her win, but she certainly ran well. She came out in good order and has trained well since."
The wildcard in the Gazelle will be the Patrick Biancone-trained Wild Fit. A grade I winner last year under Jeff Mullins' care, the Wild Rush filly was second behind champion Folklore in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) at Belmont last fall. Since then, things haven't really gone according to plan.
Purchased for $3 million by Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier after the Juvenile Fillies, Wild Fit was given the winter off and returned with a pair of runner-up efforts at Santa Anita. After another lay-off, she returned in an allowance race at Saratoga Aug. 16, where she finished fourth.
While his filly has never won beyond seven furlongs, Biancone is convinced Wild Fit will have no difficulty with the distance in the Gazelle.
"Those long races at Belmont are only one-turn, so this filly should like that," Biancone said. "She ran well there last year, so we are excited about bringing her back (to Belmont)."
Unbridled Belle, a distant fourth in the Alabama for trainer Todd Pletcher, and Last Romance, for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., complete the Gazelle field.$250,000 Gazelle Stakes (gr. I) for 3-year-old fillies
PP., Horse, Trainer, Jockey, Weight
1. Unbridled Belle, Todd Pletcher, Garrett Gomez, 115
2. Bushfire, Eddie Kenneally, Edgar Prado, 122
3. Last Romance, Richard Dutrow Jr., John Velazquez, 115
4. Teammate, H. Allen Jerkens, Cornelio Velasquez, 119
5. Pine Island, Shug McGaughey, Javier Castellano, 122
6. Wild Fit, Patrick Biancone, Julien Leparoux, 119
*Wild Fit will race with blinkers