Javier Castellano was in the kind of dilemma for which every jockey hopes. Still, he did not have an easy time choosing between Pine Island and Sugar Shake -- two fillies he had ridden to victories at the meet -- in Saturday's 90th running of the grade I Coaching Club American Oaks, the closing day feature of Belmont Park's spring/summer meet.
At entry time, Castellano was named on Pine Island, a lightly-raced and promising youngster trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. Sugar Shake, whom Castellano rode to a pair of eye-opening wins earlier this meet for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, teams up with jockey John Velazquez.
Seven 3-year-old fillies will meet Pine Island and Sugar Shake in the $300,000 Coaching Club at 1 ¼ miles, a race that has produced four eventual divisional champions -- Ajina (1997), Banshee Breeze (1998), Ashado (2004) and Smuggler (2005) - since 1997.
Earlier on the nine-race program, New York-breds meet in the $100,000-added Evan Shipman.
Pine Island, an Arch filly, has raced just three times. She showed she could hack it in grade I company earlier this month when she finished second in the Mother Goose behind Bushfire, the current division leader. Pine Island had only run twice before the Mother Goose and despite her lack of seasoning and inexperience, finished less than a length behind Bushfire, a proven stakes performer who is a multiple Grade 1 winner.
"That's what won me over between her and Sugar Shake," said Castellano, who has never won the Coaching Club. "My filly showed she belonged with Grade 1 horses and it was only her second start. I think she's a really good horse. She's only going to get better with the Mother Goose behind her."
Both of Pine Island's dirt races have come at nine furlongs and given her strong stretch kick, she should have little trouble negotiating the Coaching Club distance of 1 ¼ miles.McGaughey is going for his third Coaching Club victory after winning it in 1996 with My Flag and last year with Smuggler. Pine Island drew post 7. McGaughey says he thought the Mother Goose was a good spot for Pine Island even though she had only started twice before that.
"I thought she was probably okay with those fillies," he said. "I was kind of hoping that Bushfire might bounce off the Acorn. I thought (Bushfire) was the standout if she didn't. I'm not too sure had we not gotten away better and someone carried (Bushfire) along a little bit further that we couldn't have been more competitive with her."
Sugar Shake can earn Frankel his second Coaching Club win. By
Trainer Dallas Stewart says Lemons Forever had "no excuses" when she finished fourth as the beaten favorite in the July 1 Mother Goose. Of course, about seven weeks earlier, Lemons Forever scored one of the biggest upsets of the season when she won the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at odds of 47-1.
"She just didn't run her race in the Mother Goose. No excuses," Stewart said. "She's been training so well it would be hard to deny her the chance to run in a race like the Coaching Club. I really fell she just couldn't be doing any better."
Lemons Forever, who had only won a maiden special weight and an optional claimer before the Kentucky Oaks, drew post 2 beneath jockey Mark Guidry. Lemons Forever flew to New York from Kentucky on Wednesday.
Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens won his first and only Coaching Club in 1993 with Sky Beauty, that season's Triple Tiara champion. Jerkens entered a pair of fillies in this year's edition in Miss Shop and Teammate.
Miss Shop looks the better of the two after winning the July 3 Castle Royale on the turf with a strong late kick. So far, Miss Shop has proven as versatile as they come winning stakes on both dirt and turf.In the 1 1/16 mile Evan Shipman for New York-breds, Storm Boot Gold will try to stretch his unbeaten streak to four. By Storm Boot, Storm Boot Gold has developed from a fairly tough sprinter to outstanding route horse this summer, winning three straight races at a mile or over.
Storm Boot Gold goes out for trainer Gary Contessa, who entered the final three racing days of the summer meet two victories behind leader Rick Dutrow Jr. in the trainer standings. Coaching Club American Oaks
Post position -- Horse, jockey (all carry 121 pounds)
1--Teammate, Cornelio Velasquez
2--Lemons Forever, Mark Guidry
3--Miss Shop, Richard Migliore
4--Wonder Lady Anne L, Edgar Prado
5--Sugar Shake, John Velazquez
6--Baghdaria, Fernando Jara
7--Pine Island, Javier Castellano
8--Vague, Kent Desormeaux
9--Unbridled Belle, Ramon Dominguez