PERSONAL ENSIGN HANDICAP | PURSE: $600,000 | FILLIES AND MARES | 3-YEAR-OLDS AND UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/8-MILES
Green Hills Farm's Love and Pride has been knocking heads with some of the best in her division for a while now, and just two months ago finally broke through with a first graded victory. On Sunday, the A.P. Indy filly trumped all her rivals with a half-length score in the Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign Invitational at Saratoga.
"She's a filly that's kind of hinted she had one of those in her, and she's been real tricky to ride," trainer Todd Pletcher admitted. "She doesn't respond well to an aggressive ride. (Jockey) Johnny (Velazquez) gets along with her really well, and (she) showed up with a big performance today."
The race started with a bang, but not the kind trainer Kiaran McLaughlin wanted to see as 2-1 second choice It's Tricky fell to her knees when the gates opened. The bay miss stumbled for a few strides before finally getting her legs under her, but by then it was too late for the front-running filly.
Brushed by a Star had already grabbed the lead, with Love and Pride keep in close contact just to her outside. She posted splits of :24, :47 3/5 and 1:11 1/5, but only had a neck in front of Love and Pride by that last fraction. Meanwhile, champion and 3-5 favorite Royal Delta was drawing closer from her stalking position in third, and had drawn even as the threesome rounded the turn. Brushed by a Star began fading badly, leaving the way clear for Love and Pride to take command through a mile in 1:35 4/5.
Not surprising, It's Tricky appeared a bit rank on the backstretch but had settled under jockey Eddie Castro entering the turn. The duo scooted through an opening on the inside and took up second as Tiz Miz Sue rallied to stick her head in front of Royal Delta for third. None of those could catch Love and Pride, though, who held the tenacious Royal Delta in a final time of 1:49 1/5 for 1 1/8 miles on the fast dirt.
"We broke well, and I wanted to give her the best chance the first part of the race as I could without letting her run off with me," Velazquez explained. "She broke on top and I saw Corey Nakatani (on Brushed by a Star) wanted to go to the lead so I got off them a little bit. I had her in a pretty decent spot and the other horse kept pushing me to the outside and she got a little more aggressive. I just waited there until we got to the three-eighths pole, and when I saw (It's Tricky) get through on the inside, it was time to go and she responded right away.
"She does not like the whip," he added. "I was in front and I thought maybe I'll just show it to her and keep her mind to running, and it was a mistake. I showed it to her and she went back to the left lead and she started waiting instead of completely going. I learned something new; don't show it to her."
Pletcher was happy about the slower fractions of the Personal Ensign and that Love and Pride didn't seem to miss wearing blinkers.
"Being an A.P. Indy, she probably gets a mile and a quarter; she just doesn't want to go as fast as she did the last time (in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap), so we made a couple of adjustments. The team at Delaware did a great job with her, had her ready to go, and training over that deeper surface, I think, may have paid off today," he said.
"Michael Dilger, my Delaware assistant and I had about a 10-second conversation, and we figured we had nothing to lose (by taking off the blinkers). We were just trying to get her to turn off a little bit. When Johnny showed her the stick the first time, she jumped to her left lead, and that's kind of always been her, so he just kind of had to pick her up and hand ride her aggressively from there.
"We had anticipated we were going to be close (to the pace), but she's actually run some of her better races when she's just been in a stalking position. The complexion of the race changed at the start when It's Tricky stumbled, and we weren't sure if (It's Tricky) would be on the lead, if we'd be on the lead, or possibly (Brushed by a Star), but we were in a good stalking position and happy she was in a nice, comfortable rhythm."
Love and Pride was sent off the 10-1 fourth choice in the six-distaffer field and paid $22, $6.70 and $3.50 to her backers.
"It's nice to sometimes just come into a race and you don't have to sweat it out too much," Pletcher said of winning with a high-priced horse. "If you are fortunate and get a result like this, then it's a home run, and if you don't, no one is throwing rocks at you on the way out."
Royal Delta ground out second, a length in front of It's Tricky, who had a half-length to spare on Tiz Miz Sue. Brushed by a Star followed in fifth, beaten 11 1/2 lengths by Tiz Miz Sue, while R Gypsy Gold trailed throughout to be last on the line.
"(Royal Delta) ran a good race, an incredible race, but not her best race. I don't know. Mike maybe should have gone a little earlier. I don't have much to say about it," trainer Bill Mott mused.
Jockey Mike Smith was not so circumspect.
"I'm not going to make a lot of excuses. The winner ran a bang-up race. We got outrun," he admitted. "If I had to do it all over again, I would have rode her a little differently and got brave early. I would have moved earlier. In doing that, though, I could have tackled the long shot and make myself a little vulnerable for a closer. We did that a little bit the last time, and it didn't seem like the thing to do. In hindsight, it kind of was."
It's Tricky had a rough beginning in the Personal Ensign (Harold Roth/Horsephotos.com)
McLaughlin was just glad It's Tricky seemed to come back OK.
"She stumbled very badly and (jockey Eddie Castro) was lucky to stay on," he said. "She got up and ran her heart out. She ran very well. A break like that, it's very unfortunate. We're very proud of her. It's just the highs and lows of the game. Congratulations to the winner."
"She ran awesome today. She tried so hard," Castro praised. "After the stumble, I didn't think she would do anything, but she really tried hard. Sometimes that happens; no good luck today."
Love and Pride opened her career at Delaware Park, taking her maiden debut by three parts of a length, and two races later recorded an 8 1/4-length victory against optional claiming company. She made her first foray outside the confines of Delaware when shipped to New York for Saratoga's Proud Spell Stakes and triumphed on that day by 6 3/4 lengths.
The dark bay lass wouldn't visit the winner's circle again until making her four-year-old bow on January 28, capturing the Affectionately Stakes at Aqueduct by seven lengths. In the interim, she ran fifth to It's Tricky second in the Grade 2 Cotillion, third in the Real Prize Stakes behind that race's winner R Gypsy Gold, the filled the third spot once again, this time behind champion Awesome Feather in the Grade 1 Gazelle Stakes.
Following her seasonal opening win, Love and Pride finished second in the Grade 2 Top Flight Handicap to It's Tricky and just missed by a head in the Grade 3 Allaire duPont Distaff two races later. She finally recorded her first graded score in the Grade 3 Obeah Stakes, appropriately enough back at Delaware Park, and entered this one off a hard-fought fourth behind Royal Delta and Tiz Miz Sue in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap.
Love and Pride improved her scorecard to read 15-6-2-4 with her Personal Ensign triumph, and the winner's share of purse boosted her earnings to $775,760.
Bred in Kentucky by Stud TNT, Love and Pride was a $380,000 Keeneland April two-year-old in training RNA. She is out of the Grade 1-placed Storm Cat mare Ile de France, making her a three-quarter sibling to classic-winning champion and top sire Bernardini. That stallion and Ile de France are both out of Broodmare of the Year and Grade 1 victress Cara Rafaela, who also produced the dam of multiple Grade 3 scorer Thiskyhasnolimit. Cara Rafaela is herself a half-sister to dual Grade 3 hero and sire Abaginone.
Love and Pride's fourth dam is the Grade 3-winning Northern Dancer mare Northern Fable.