Updated on 09/15/2011 12:49PM

Bray goes easy, bets big on Astra

Benoit & Associates
Astra has her final workout for Saturday's Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington. She went five furlongs in 1:01.20 Sunday at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Saturday could mark the biggest day of trainer Simon Bray's career. He sends out Astra, the nation's leading female turf runner, in the Beverly D. Stakes, and Startac, a talented 3-year-old turf runner, in the Secretariat Stakes, both Grade 1 events at Arlington Park that are part of the Arlington Million card.

Yet Bray views the day with more trepidation than excitement. "I've had a few sleepless nights," he said. A chronic worrier by nature, Bray is, by his own admission, subsisting on a diet of Tylenol PM this week. "It's a big friend of mine," he said.

"I look forward to winning, but, with me, I'm motivated more out of the fear of defeat," Bray said. "It's a shame to say that, but it's true."

Bray's stress level is the result of his handling of Astra. This year, it has been perfect. The 5-year-old mare has raced twice, and won twice, both in overpowering performances, to bring her overall record to eight wins in 10 starts. But Bray has left himself little margin for error as he seeks an Eclipse Award for Astra. He is convinced that a light schedule of both racing and workouts is what suits Astra best, yet with only four starts scheduled for her this year, she cannot afford a misstep.

So far, everything has gone as Bray had hoped. Astra returned from a 10-month layoff in April and roared to victory in Santa Anita's Santa Barbara Handicap on April 14. Astra was kept out of the Gamely Handicap, so she did not run again until June 24, when she quickened brilliantly while scoring a four-length victory in Hollywood Park's Grade 1 Beverly Hills Handicap. Kent Desormeaux rode her both times.

The Beverly D. will be Astra's penultimate start of the year, followed only by the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, part of the World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park on Oct. 27.

"This has been totally by design," said Bray, who is based at Del Mar. "I made a mistake last year. She ran huge in the Gamely, but then I ran her back in the Beverly Hills, just 28 days later, and she ran awful. She didn't look good. She dropped weight. She was depleted." Astra never ran the rest of the year. "I vowed not to make the same mistake this year," Bray said.

When Bray first trained Astra, he kept her on a more frequent schedule of racing and working. "But she wouldn't eat well," Bray said. "She's highly strung. She took her racing hard - still does - because she puts forth such an effort. I would work her with a more regular schedule, but now I have a better feel for her. Now that I train her lightly, she comes into her races better, and she holds her weight better."

Bray said Astra is "not very tall, but she's stout."

Astra had a mere five workouts heading into the Santa Barbara, despite the extended layoff. In the time between the Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills, she had just three works. This time, she has worked twice.

"She's so aggressive in the morning galloping," Bray said. "Fitness-wise, the lack of works is not an issue." Astra completed her serious training by working five furlongs on turf in 1:01.20 on Sunday morning at Del Mar.

Astra relaxes better in her races now, almost too much so for Bray's comfort. "Her racing style has changed completely," he said. "She's aggressive in the mornings, and she was last year in her races, but this year she's not rank. She almost gives you a heart attack, because she's so switched off, she has to be ridden, and she doesn't get going until the lane. She saves her punch."

Astra and Startac were scheduled to leave for Chicago in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Both were sired by Theatrical, were bred by the late Allen Paulson, and race now for his trust.

Startac will be making his first start since finishing 10th of 17 in the Kentucky Derby on May 5. He moves back to turf, on which he has won twice in four starts, and which Bray believes is Startac's preferred surface. Alex Solis has the mount in the Secretariat.

"He's been training phenomenally down here," Bray said. "He came out of the Derby in great shape, but we gave him time off by design, because all the better turf races are in the second half of the year. He's matured, grown, and filled out a little more."