01/08/2014 12:00AM

2013 Eclipse Awards: Close Hatches

photo by: Barbara D. Livingston

Bill Mott doesn’t typically press hard with his first-time starters, so on Jan. 26, the tote board at Gulfstream Park spoke volumes about newcomer Close Hatches, a filly from the first crop of the Juddmonte Farms stallion First Defence who was vying for favoritism in a big field.

At 3-1, Close Hatches won like she was 3-5, advancing to midpack around the turn and drawing away by seven lengths.

Six weeks later, Mott entered Close Hatches in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs but scratched her in favor of an allowance race the following day at Gulfstream, where she had been stabled all winter.

“I’d kick myself if I sent her to Tampa and she didn’t handle that racetrack,” Mott said. “If she’d been training at Payson, it might have been a different story.”

Odds-on this time, Close Hatches sped right to the lead and turned back all comers, improving several lengths.

The first serious test awaited Close Hatches in Aqueduct’s Grade 2 Gazelle, which had been repositioned to serve as New York’s key prep for the Kentucky Oaks. The race also attracted Princess of Sylmar, who had demolished her opponents in both the Busher and the Busanda at the Big A.

Close Hatches raced to a clear early lead and then repelled Princess of Sylmar’s prolonged bid to win decisively.

“She showed a lot of courage, is what she showed,” Mott said afterward. “She went eyeball to eyeball with a horse that has a lot of experience and developed a pretty good record over the course of the winter and won [two] stakes. I think for a third start and first time in stakes company, she ran very, very well.”

It was on to Louisville, where Close Hatches was the fourth choice in a deep renewal of the Kentucky Oaks. It was not her day, however, and she finished seventh behind Princess of Sylmar, who at 38-1 edged Beholder, the 2012 juvenile filly Eclipse Award champion. It would be the only time Close Hatches did not finish first or second.

“She went into the Oaks off three lifetime races, and that’s a lot to expect,” Mott said. “They run it the first Friday in May, just a little too soon for some horses.”

Close Hatches rebounded with a runner-up finish in the Acorn and then, in a huge performance, won the Mother Goose in a romp over 1-5 favorite Dreaming of Julia, who prior to a troubled fourth in the Kentucky Oaks had earned a 114 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the Davona Dale by nearly 22 lengths.

“She really exploded nicely,” a beaming Mott said in the winner’s circle. “She came out of the Acorn doing extremely well, had put on a little weight since then, one of those things that’s hard to explain why all of a sudden they start to round into form. She was good before but went into [the Mother Goose] really nicely.”

Close Hatches spiked a fever soon afterward that forced her to bypass Saratoga’s Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama. Coming off a three-month layoff in the $1 million Cotillion, she spotted seven pounds to Sweet Lulu and handed the Grade 1 Test winner her first defeat. In addition to notching her second straight Grade 1 victory, Close Hatches surpassed $1 million in earnings after a mere seven starts.

Close Hatches, owned by Juddmonte Farms, concluded her 3-year-old campaign by finishing a clear second to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita, the sixth different track she had visited.

“She made a nice run,” Mott said.