06/09/2011 9:28AM

Belmont Park: Just a Game favorite Aviate has potential to follow in Proviso's footsteps

Tom Keyser
Aviate (left) roars by the field in the stretch run of the Distaff Turf Mile.

ELMONT, N. Y. – The similarities between Proviso, the high-class Grade 1 grass mare of 2010, and Aviate are striking. This is great news for Aviate, and less-than-great news for the eight lining up against her in the Grade 1, $400,000 Foxwoods Just a Game Stakes at a mile on the Widener turf course on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

Aviate and Proviso are both Juddmonte Farms-bred and -owned daughters of Dansili who after impressive successes at the start of their racing days in Europe, did not go on to quite the European careers their connections envisioned. Proviso eventually came to America seeking glory, and wound up hitting it big. She won this race last year, numbering it among her four Grade 1 victories during 2010. And after retiring at the end of the season, Proviso was only denied a divisional championship because of a monster named Goldikova.

By all indications, Aviate, who followed Proviso’s path to the U.S., looks poised to also hit it big. In another intriguing parallel, Aviate comes into the Just a Game off a victory in a one mile turf stakes, just as Proviso did last year. Proviso’s prelude to the Just a Game came in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile over males, while Aviate’s came in “only” the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard. But while Proviso’s Kilroe Mile win was by the narrowest of margins, Aviate was unquestionably best at Churchill Downs.

Aviate sat farther off a moderate early pace at Churchill than she did when a creditable third in her U.S. debut two months earlier in Gulfstream Park’s Honey Fox Stakes. That enabled her to produce a more potent late punch, and an overall performance that was a distinct cut above the one she delivered in Florida. No one was able to kick late with Aviate in Kentucky. She overwhelmed the leaders from the outside in deep stretch to register a victory that felt a lot bigger than her actual win margin of 1 1/2 lengths would suggest.

Fantasia, back for another try Saturday, is a good barometer of how strong Aviate was on Derby Day. Fantasia, who got to within less than a length of Proviso when fourth in the Grade 1 First Lady Stakes last fall, was primed for a sharp performance in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile after previously finishing a fine second in the Jenny Wiley Stakes off a 5 1/2-month layoff. But even allowing that Aviate got first run on Fantasia, Fantasia was simply unable to finish with the same speed as Aviate, and had to settle for third, beaten slightly less than two lengths.

Gypsy’s Warning, who won the Grade 1 Matriarch at this distance last fall, could be the main challenger for Aviate, if she is able to improve on a seventh in the Jenny Wiley in her only start this year. Improvement will be necessary, for even allowing for the fact that Gypsy’s Warning was coming off a five month layoff, she was flat in her comeback. Yielding footing in the Wiley might have been a factor, however. “I should have scratched her, in hindsight, because she likes firm ground,” said Graham Motion, who trains not only Gypsy’s Warning for Team Valor International, but also Belmont Stakes favorite Animal Kingdom. “It was the only bad race she’s run, and even that wasn’t that bad. We’re expecting good things Saturday.”

With C. S. Silk still searching for the form that enabled her to be a close second to Proviso in the First Lady last fall, with Florida shipper Cherokee Queen stepping way up, albeit in sharp form, and with Grade 1 caliber Amen Hallelujah never having raced on turf before, Justaroundmidnight might be one to upset at a big price. Justaroundmidnight did not fire in the same Honey Fox in which Aviate made her U.S. bow, but she is in the ballpark off her Marshua’s River Stakes upset three starts back.