05/05/2017 4:18PM

Castellano and Benner Island perfect together in Eight Belles

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Barbara D. Livingston
Benner Island paid $8.80 to win the Eight Belles Stakes on Friday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ideally, a race is won through the successful partnering of horse and rider. And that is exactly what happened in the Grade 2, $200,000 Eight Belles Stakes for 3-year-old fillies Friday at Churchill Downs.

Benner Island battled like a champion, turning back challenges from Lovely Bernadette, What What What, and Golden Mischief, and jockey Javier Castellano did his part, closing the rail at the three-sixteenths pole as Union Strike attempted to rally up the fence. Union Strike had to swing several paths outside to find room, and, fighting back one last foe, Benner Island turned her away to win by a head.

“She still was digging all the way to the wire,” said Castellano, who was riding the filly for the first time. “She truly ran really hard. Every step of the way she fought. That gave me confidence past the wire that she’d got the bob.”

Union Strike and Brice Blanc hugged the rail from the start, racing well behind Benner Island’s pace of 22.54, 45.78, and 1:11.23. At the quarter pole, as he straightened for home, Blanc saw space to pass at the fence, but before Union Strike could get into the hole, it was gone.

“[Castellano] heard me coming and saw me coming, and just closed the door,” Blanc said.

Blanc claimed foul and the judges took a fairly long look, but in the end Castellano merely was doing what an Eclipse Award-winning rider does: Give his mount the very best chance to win.

Benner Island ran seven furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:24.28 and paid $8.80 to win. The Longshot Laney was along late for third, 1 1/2 lengths behind California shipper Union Strike, who ran well in defeat and might have gotten her picture taken with a clear stretch run.

“First time in the mud, I thought she was pretty brave. She’s a very good filly,” Blanc said.

Benner Island is by Speightstown out of the Awesome Again mare Spacy Tracy, and was purchased at auction for $200,000. Carrying the silks of the Shortleaf Stable, she won for the third time in eight starts while capturing her first stakes.

Trainer Brad Cox was looking forward to turning Benner Island back from three two-turn races at Oaklawn Park, but was slightly surprised his filly was quick enough to make the lead from the rail.

“When I saw the 22 and change I wasn’t too concerned, but when I saw the 45, I didn’t like that,” Cox said. “Honestly, turning for home I thought she would back up, after seeing the factions, but knowing the filly, I knew she was going to fight.”

Benner Island’s win came about 45 minutes after Cox had sent out Green Mask to win the Grade 3 Turf Sprint, and a graded-stakes double on Kentucky Oaks day is no minor deal for the Louisville native.

“It’s awesome, me growing up two blocks out the back gate here,” Cox said. “This is my home, and yeah, this is great, but probably surreal. I don’t know if it’s even hit me yet. Right now I’m just getting ready for my horse in race 13.”