Sunday afternoon, just about the time this was starting to look like an ordinary, even uninspiring, year for fillies, Flashy Gray turned into the Gulfstream Park stretch and then, at the urging of Joel Rosario, took complete control of the moment, the race and the outcome. And maybe this won't be such an ordinary season for fillies after all.
A long mural of black and white and gray dapples, she can turn heads just standing there motionless, and when she moves like that -- well, she can turn expectations, too, turn them right around. Sunday, Flashy Gray ran the final three of seven furlongs in 36.42 seconds, pulling clear to win by nearly five lengths. Taken in hand in the final yards, she stopped the teletimer at 1:22.64. Later that afternoon at Gulfstream, just to provide some context, a maiden race for what looked to be a solid group of colts was won in 1:25.11, with a final three-eighths in 39.80.
Bill Mott, Flashy Gray's Hall of Fame trainer, said she "looked pretty serious," and he's rather serious himself. Having trained several of the best horses of the last 20 years, Mott doesn't impress easily, and he approaches conclusions as if they're rickety, antique cane chairs, prone to collapse when jumped upon. He liked what he saw from Flashy Gray.
"She responded when she was asked," Mott said, explaining that the filly's temperament and stride should enable her to stretch out. "It wasn't like she was trying to run off. She ran when he [Rosario] called on her, and she galloped out strongly."
But until then, until that fey-gray moment Sunday afternoon, the 3-year-old fillies, as a group, seemed to be off to a rather uninspiring start to their season. Beholder, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2012, shockingly lost the Santa Ynez in her seasonal debut. She was later found to have a throat ulcer that no doubt compromised her performance, but hardly softened the shock.
And two of the more impressive winners of this young season, Kauai Katie and Calistoga, look as if they're going to be, at least for the moment, more comfortable sprinting, not that there's anything inadequate or unrewarding in sprinting, of course, but this is the time of year that fans become eagerly watchful for fillies advancing on the Kentucky Oaks. Well, that watchfulness is starting to be rewarded.
Emollient, a flashy winner last fall at Belmont who finished second in the Demoiselle Stakes after she stumbled leaving the gate, will make her seasonal debut Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Trainer Todd Pletcher said he's planning to send Unlimited Budget, the Demoiselle winner, to New Orleans for next week's Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds. Meanwhile, Pletcher said, Dreaming Of Julia, last year's Frizette winner who ran third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, will make her seasonal debut at Gulfstream in the Davona Dale Stakes.
Yes, expectations for the fillies' season are turning, the Oaks procession is underway, and it all began in that Flashy Gray moment. It was only her third start, and with it she announced she could be special. But, in truth, she had given strong, unmistakable hints all along.
Flashy Gray learned her early lessons and was prepared for the races at the Diamond D Ranch in Lone Oak, Texas. That's where, in 2008, Rachel Alexandra also got her early education. Rachel Alexandra was the valedictorian of that 2008 class; Flashy Gray of the 2012 class. Dolphus Morrison owned both fillies.
After missing by a head on Keeneland's synthetic surface in her debut last fall, Flashy Gray won by more than 10 lengths at Churchill Downs. Then, like Rachel Alexandra after the Oaks, she was sold. A partnership of West Point Thoroughbreds and Tom Keithley purchased Flashy Gray for $775,000. Sunday, she made her first start for her new connections and, coincidentally, turned more than a few heads to look, first of all, her way and then down the road in the general direction of the Kentucky Oaks.
With that perspective, and because the field is limited to 14, here are some possible noisemakers on the road to the Oaks.
1. Beholder: The champ has had two workouts since the Santa Ynez, the most recent on Tuesday (six furlongs in 1:13.20), and could return to the winner's circle in next month's Las Virgenes.
2. Dreaming of Julia: Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, said she's training sharply for her return on Feb. 23 in the Davona Dale. Although beaten by more than five lengths in the Breeders' Cup, she was compromised by the speed-loving surface and should be better suited to Churchill Downs.
3. Flashy Gray: With her victory Sunday, she showed she could be one of the most talented fillies around, and although behind in terms of experience, she appears tractable. Her trainer, Bill Mott, has a stable rich in fillies, and he said he's considering stakes at several racetracks for them.
4. Executiveprivilege: Despite a foot problem, a "quarter crack" that cost her some training, she's aimed at the Oaks.
5. Emollient: Another from the Mott barn, she showed last year that she could be special, her trainer said. She'll return to competition Saturday.
6. Fiftyshadesofhay: "We were always high on her, but she had meltdown issues," her trainer, Bob Baffert, said about the filly who, finally learning to control her nervousness, won the Santa Ysabel by nearly six lengths. The Virgenes is next.
7. Pure Fun: The winner of the Hollywood Starlet is reportedly close to her first serious workout of the season. She won by nine lengths last year at Churchill Downs.
8. Unlimited Budget: Unbeaten in two races, she's to make her seasonal debut in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds.
9. Close Hatches: Another from the Mott stable, the daughter of First Defense rallied strongly and was taken in hand late while winning her debut last month at Gulfstream Park.
10. So Many Ways: The unbeaten filly who won the Schuylerville and Spinaway at Saratoga is training in Florida for her return.
11. Live Lively: The Medaglia d'Oro filly won her seasonal debut at Gulfstream on New Year's Day by more than 11 lengths and could stretch out in the Davona Dale.
12. Princess of Sylmar: Unbeaten around two turns, she has won four consecutive races, including two stakes, by a total of 39 lengths.
13. Private Ensign: The daughter of A.P. Indy finished with a rush to win a one-mile allowance race in Florida and suggest she could improve with even more distance.
14. Sister Ginger: The winner of the recent Martha Washington Stakes, she could return in the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park.