MARSHUA'S RIVER STAKES | PURSE: $100,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | Grade 3 | 1 1/16 MILE (TURF)
Garland Williamson's homebred Hard Not to Like, whose 2012 Queen's Plate ambitions were derailed by injury, made a successful return to action in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Marshua's River Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf. Sent off at odds of 7-1 in her first start for Michael Matz, the Hard Spun filly rallied up the rail to defeat Channel Lady by a half-length, paying $17.60, $7.60 and $4.
Hard Not to Like's prior stakes victory came as a juvenile, when she crushed males by 4 3/4 lengths in the 2011 Cup and Saucer Stakes. Then trained by Gail Cox, she had high expectations for her classic campaign, beginning with a fine runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Ashland last April. But after a distant sixth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks in her only dirt attempt, Hard Not to Like suffered a chipped knee that required surgery. The gray was subsequently transferred to Matz, and was clearly ready for her comeback from an eight-month layoff here.
Despite breaking a half-step slowly for Joe Rocco Jr., Hard Not to Like soon recovered to settle in a stalking third. Meanwhile, Frontside was living up to her name by leading through steady splits of :24 4/5, :48 4/5 and 1:12 4/5 on the firm course.
The 5-2 second choice Channel Lady, in second throughout, advanced to challenge on the outside turning for home. Hard Not to Like held her ground on the inside, and with the tiring Frontside edging out a bit, a seam opened up.
Driving through the gap with good heart, Hard Not to Like now accosted Channel Lady. The battle was brief, for Hard Not to Like outkicked her rival and completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 3/5.
"She didn't break as sharp as I thought she would," Rocco said. "I thought she'd be laying second from the paper, but it worked out well. Halfway around the first turn I was able to get in behind Javier Castellano [aboard Channel Lady] and draft behind him. When I saw [Joel Rosario on Frontside] pull his stick through to his left hand turning for home, I said hopefully this is my hole, and my filly ran right through it."
"I didn't know what to expect," Matz said. "I didn't know if Joe was going to get through there. She has that will to win. We've had plenty of works in her, but you never know. You've got to give credit to the horse."
Leading Astray, the 2-1 favorite, found traffic trouble before rallying for third, another 2 1/2 lengths back. Chokurei reported home fourth, followed by Frontside, defending champion Heavenly Landing, Frolic's Revenge and Affair Dabbler. Filare l'Oro and Fantasy of Flight were scratched.
Hard Not to Like's resume now reads 8-4-1-0, $450,035. She won her first two career starts on the Woodbine turf -- a six-furlong maiden and a one-mile allowance -- before finishing fifth as the favorite in her stakes debut in the Grade 3 Natalma. Hard Not to Like made amends next time out in the Cup and Saucer and ended her 2011 season with a decent fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
"She's a delight to train -- she's really a nice horse to train," Matz said. "She's likes to train. She does everything the way you'd like. She trains like a stakes winner.
"We'd like to keep her for the rest of the year. We'll see if we can find something down here. Maybe we can do so something towards the end of the meet."
The Ontario-bred Hard Not to Like is a three-quarter sister to Grade 3-placed Ruby Lips, who was just demoted from second to third in Saturday's Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct.
Hard Not to Like is the first foal from multiple stakes queen Like a Gem, a daughter of Tactical Cat. Like a Gem is herself a half-sister to stakes scorer Win and Reign; Grade 3-placed Cool Gator; and Ruby Lips, who like Hard Not to Like, is by Hard Spun.
This is also the family of Grade 1 victor Firery Ensign, Italian classic winner Davide Umbro and undefeated Grade 2 star Run Away and Hide.