Shortleaf Stable's Benner Island—on the engine from the one post—led throughout in the slop at Churchill Downs May 5, holding off Union Strike by a head in the $200,000 Eight Belles Stakes Presented by Kentucky Trailer (G2).
Brice Blanc, the rider of Union Strike, lodged an objection against the winner for alleged interference in early stretch, but the claim was not allowed.
With Javier Castellano up for trainer Brad Cox, Benner Island covered the seven furlongs in 1:24.28 as the 3-1 favorite. Laney sent off at 49-1, finished third, 1 1/2 lengths back.
A full field of 14 sophomore fillies went postward in the Eight Belles. Benner Island, breaking alertly, battled along the inside early with Lovely Bernandette and What What What early through a :22.54 opening quarter-mile and a :45.78 half-mile. Union Strike, on the other hand, was midpack early while along the rail, but gained as the field went through the turn.
As the field straightened into the lane Benner Island held firm on the lead as a wall of horses came after her, but it was Union Strike who was able to make headway after moving from the inside to about the four path after six furlongs in 1:11.28. She cut into the lead with each stride and just missed at the line.
"The track is a little speed favoring, and I used my horse a little bit early to put her in a good position," Castellano said. "She fought very hard down the stretch and I know once I was past the wire that I was confident she stayed in her path."
Brice saw things differently: "I don't understand why they didn't take her down. She broke my momentum twice. We were inside the three-sixteenths pole and I got up in the hole-I was there. And she shut me off. I broke a little slow, but my filly put me right in the race. First time in the mud for her she ran terrific."
Benner Island, bred by Mercedes Stables, is a daughter of sprint champion Speightstown out of the Spacy Tracy, a grade 2 winner by Awesome Again . Consigned by Lyn Burleson's Burleson Farms, John Ed Anthony's Shortleaf Stable paid $200,000 for her during the third session of the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.
Spacy Tracy won the 2010 Top Flight Handicap (G2) for Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stables and trainer Tony Dutrow. Spacy Tracy is out of Tracy, a half sister to champion Eliza, who is the second dam of last year's leading first-crop sire Dialed In .
"She was taking Javier up the backside and when I saw the :22 and change I didn't mind that, but when I saw :45 and change I didn't like that," said Cox. "Turning for home I thought she would back up on those fractions. It was a big effort and a great job."
Cox mentioned the grade 1 Acorn Stakes June 10 at Belmont as a next possible outing.
Benner Island wintered at Oaklawn with Cox, who won the Twin Spires Turf Sprint Stakes Presented by TwinSpires.com (G3T) with Green Mask in the race before the Eight Belles.
"This is awesome," Cox said of the two wins. "Growing up two blocks outside the back gate, this is my home. I don't know if it's hit me yet. Green Mask showed up today and finally got it done and then this filly. We expected her to run big today."
She ran sixth in the Martha Washington Stakes, second in the grade 3 Honeybee Stakes, and fifth in the Fantasy Stakes (G3). Last fall Benner Island won at Churchill Downs in an allowance optional claimer going a mile. She has now won three times, with two seconds, from eight starts and has earned $235,863.
The winner paid $8.80, $5, and $3.80; with Union Strike returning $5.40 and $4. Laney paid $14.60 to show. The $2 exacta (1-2) paid $37.
Golden Mischief finished fouth and was followed by Pretty City Dancer, Gris Gris, China Grove, Cajun Delta Dawn, Let It Ride Mom, Florida Fabulous, Ghalia, What What What, Lovely Bernadette, and I'mluckysgirl.