01/08/2013 6:45PM

2012 Eclipse Awards: Zagora

photo by: Emily Shields

By the time Zagora left Saratoga last season, her year was reaching a crescendo. She had already won four stakes on turf and finished third in the Grade 1 Diana Stakes to stake a rightful place among the nation’s top turf females.

Over the next few months, she climbed the ratings with each start, culminating with a career-defining victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. The win makes Zagora the leading contender for the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding turf female of 2012.

The groundwork for a run at such a title was established in 2011, the year that Zagora won her first Grade 1 – the Diana Stakes at Saratoga.

Trained by Chad Brown for Martin Schwartz, Zagora – bred in France by E. Puerari and Oceanic Bloodstock – left a favorable impression from the start of her 2012 campaign, winning her first two starts – the Grade 3 Endeavour Stakes and Grade 3 Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February and March.

The disappointment of a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland in April was erased by an emphatic win in the Grade 3 Gallorette Handicap at Pimlico on the undercard of the Preakness Stakes.

From there, it was on to Brown’s base in New York for the summer and fall, where the weather did not always to cooperate. Zagora was third to Winter Memories in the Diana Stakes on good turf and rebounded to win the Grade 2 Ballston Spa Stakes in late August on firm turf at Saratoga.

A wet start to the autumn in New York City did not suit Zagora, who could only finish second to the English filly Nahrain in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont Park in late September.

Brown’s enthusiasm for Zagora’s campaign did not waver with the loss. He banked on firm turf in sunny California for the Breeders’ Cup and got his wish for the Filly and Mare Turf. At the same time, Brown was fully aware of what Zagora had to do.

“She needs to run the race of her life,” he said a few days before the race.

The race drew a very strong cast, including the European-based runners I’m A Dreamer, Nahrain, and The Fugue, and the American stakes winners In Lingerie, Lady of Shamrock, and Marketing Mix.

Ridden by Javier Castellano, Zagora was fourth early, moved closer to the front on the turn, and rallied wide to catch stretch leader Marketing Mix in the final furlong. She won the $1.8 million race by three-quarters of a length, her fifth stakes win of 2012.

“For her to be my first Grade 1 winner last year, and to win a race of this magnitude, she’ll always have a special place in our barn,” Brown said. “My entire staff just loves the filly, and we’re proud of her.”

The Filly & Mare Turf was Zagora’s final start. Three days later, she was sold for $2.5 million to French interests at the Fasig-Tipton November sale.