05/19/2011 10:20AM

Belmont Park: Awesome Maria brings best form to Shuvee Handicap

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Bob Coglianese
Awesome Maria wins the Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream Park by eight lengths on April 2.

ELMONT, N.Y. – You’d think Todd Pletcher would’ve already won the Shuvee Handicap a handful of times, but the five-time Eclipse Award winner will be looking for his first such victory in Saturday’s 36th running of the Grade 2, $150,000 race for fillies and mares.

Awesome Maria, coming off the two fastest performances of her career at Gulfstream Park, will be odds-on to rectify that situation when she breaks from post 3 with Javier Castellano and spots seven to 10 pounds to four rivals, including her uncoupled stablemate Happy Week, who drew the rail with Jose Lezcano.

After winning the Matron and finishing second by a head in the Frizette here as a 2-year-old for Stanley Hough, Awesome Maria was transferred to Pletcher and didn’t make her 3-year-old debut until the final week at Saratoga, when she won the Riskaverse on turf. She concluded a four-race campaign with a runner-up finish in the Gazelle, but then appeared to turn a corner in two blowout victories to begin her 4-year-old season, drawing away in the Sabin by nearly five lengths and the Rampart by eight, while pairing up career-best Beyer Speed Figures of 102.

“Todd has mentioned that she really came to hand in Florida, and we have seen plenty of the same since she came up here,” assistant trainer Jonathan Thomas said. “She’s acted like a quality filly disposition-wise, but obviously she has turned her game up a notch.”

Awesome Maria, who owns all three of the field’s graded stakes victories, is the 4-5 morning-line choice in the one-mile Shuvee. She will likely have to catch the speedy Absinthe Minded, the 8-5 second choice with Alan Garcia.

Absinthe Minded has led at the pace call in her last six starts, the last three coming against divisional leaders Havre de Grace and Blind Luck in the Azeri and Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park and the La Troienne at Churchill Downs just 15 days ago.

“This is a nice place for her to step up,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won the Shuvee four times from 1985-91. “Number one, we’d like to get a good graded effort out of her, and two, the distance should be good for her. She’s led some awfully good horses for a mile. This race is back a little quick, but we like the distance, and she’s doing very well at the moment.”

R Betty Graybull, a stretch-running New York-bred mare who has won four of her last six starts, has been freshened up by trainer Linda White since running down Quiet Giant – a 2-5 shot from Pletcher’s barn – in the Ladies Handicap closing weekend at Aqueduct’s winter meet.

“We’re not thrilled to have to run against Awesome Maria, but I was afraid of Quiet Giant, too, and I guess you can’t be afraid of one horse,” White said.

Spa City Princess, a two-time winner in New York-bred overnight stakes this year for Pat Kelly, completes the field.