Round Pond (inside) survives a tough duel with Happy Ticket (2) to win the Azeri BC, Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

Round Pond (inside) survives a tough duel with Happy Ticket (2) to win the Azeri BC, Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography

Round Pond Nips 'Ticket in Dramatic Azeri BC

Round Pond and Happy Ticket staged a brilliant duel in the $173,500 Azeri Breeders' Cup (gr. III) for fillies and mares Saturday before 22,908 at Oaklawn Park before the favored Round Pond prevailed by a determined neck.

"I feel embarrassed the purse was so small," said Oaklawn President Charles J. Cella of the $105,000 winner's share. "This was one for the ages."

The race figured to be between the two grade I winners who could be headed for a rematch in the $500,000 Apple Blossom (gr. I) on April 8. Breaking from the two inside posts, they were probably never separated by more than a neck in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri, but Round Pond – under pressure while racing on the inside throughout – refused to give in after the Happy Ticket took the lead for a couple of strides inside the three-sixteenth pole.

The result was a happy head bob for the Smarty Jones combo of jockey Stewart Elliott and trainer John Servis, who got the job done for owner Fox Hill Farms. Happy Ticket was the unluckiest of losers for trainer Andrew Leggio Jr. and jockey Robby Albarado.

"Both fillies really ran a game race," said Elliott. "We just matched stride for stride and when we hit the stretch, both fillies kicked it in and gave it all they had."

Servis said he had cautioned Elliott not to get caught up in a match-race situation with Happy Ticket, fearing that the two might be run down late by another horse. But he noted that, though the horses battled all the way, "the fractions were sensible."

Leggio was pleased despite the loss.

"I am happy," Leggio said. "Two great horses and a great race."

Final time for the 1 1/16-mile distance was 1:43 4/5.

"She just wanted it," Elliott said of Round Pond.

As the 119-pound top-weight under the allowance conditions of the race, Happy Ticket was conceding six pounds to Round Pond, who, at 113 pounds, was the co-low-weight of the race.

The 4-year-old Round Pond, and Happy Ticket, 5, both won grade I races during superb 2005 campaigns, and both had tuned up for their initial meeting with dominating wins last month.

A bay daughter of Awesome Again , Round Pond won an optional claiming/allowance race over the Oaklawn course at six furlongs by 2 3/4 lengths Feb. 16. She has now won six of eight lifetime, including Belmont Park's Acorn (gr. I) last June, with earnings of $596,300.

Happy Ticket has not been worse than second in 15 starts with 11 victories, including a 5 1/2-length romp in the Ballerina (gr. I) at muddy Saratoga in August.

Round Pond led through quarter-mile fractions of :23 4/5, :48 2/5, 1:13 3/5 and 1:37 4/5. Platinum Ballet ranged up on the far turn while three wide but could not go with the other two, finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind in third.

The 3-5 choice, Round Pond paid $3.20, $2.20, and $2.20. The ultra-game Happy Ticket returned $2.40 and $2.20. Platinum Ballet was $2.80 to show.

La Reason finished fourth, followed by Took Out and Daddy's Petunia.

On-track betting for the 11-race program totaled $1,826,755. Wagers at simulcast sites brought the total handle to $6,864,756.

(Chart, Equibase)