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Hovdey: Alabama victory would be a grand prize for partners
By Jay Hovdey
Since the powers of summertime racing decided to hold their marquee events for 3-year-old fillies on the same warm August afternoon, why not compare and contrast.
The Alabama Stakes at Saratoga is a mile and one-quarter test on the main track for a purse of $600,000, with $360,000 to the winner.
The Del Mar Oaks at Del Mar is a mile and one-eighth on the grass course for a purse of $300,000, with $180,000 going to the winner.
The Alabama was first run in 1872, at a time during which the real state of Alabama was in the throes of the turbulent Reconstruction Era following the failed rebellion by the South.
The Del Mar Oaks was not unveiled until 1957, better known as the dawn of the Space Age, when the U.S.S.R. launched its first unmanned Sputnik satellite.
The Alabama is named in honor of William Cottrell, a captain in the Confederacy and horse breeder from Mobile who stood the stallion Daniel Boone, a full brother to Kentucky, winner of the first Travers Stakes in 1864. When asked if the top filly race of the meet could carry his name, Capt. Cottrell supposedly demured in favor of his home state. William Travers, who was born in Maryland and owned Kentucky (the horse), was not quite so shy.
The Del Mar Oaks is named for a tree.
By 1936, when the game started declaring national champions, there had been 55 runnings of the Alabama. Among those 55 winners were future Hall of Famers Beldame, Miss Woodford, Top Flight, and Maskette. Since 1936 the Alabama has been won by champions Vagrancy (on a DQ), Stefanita, But Why Not, Kiss Me Kate, Parlo, What a Treat, Gamely, Fanfreluche, Desert Vixen, Our Mims, Life’s Magic, Mom’s Command, Open Mind, Go for Wand, Heavenly Prize, Yanks Music, Banshee Breeze, Silverbulletday, Farda Amiga, Proud Spell, Blind Luck, and Royal Delta. Champion Lady Pitt won the 1966 running but was disqualified.
Del Mar officials ceded any serious impact their Oaks might have on national championships in 1965 when the race was switched from the main track to the turf. Still, national champions Turkish Trousers, Heartlight No. One, Flawlessly, Hollywood Wildcat and Golden Apples ended up winning the Del Mar Oaks at some point in their careers.
Bill Mott, Bobby Frankel, Bob Baffert, and Wayne Lukas won both races at least once, and there are a handful of owners who have won both as well, among them Bert and Diana Firestone, C.V. Whitney, and Louis and Patrice Wolfson.
The California-based Eclipse Thoroughbred Partnerships had a shot to swing for a high-profile sweep this weekend. However, they opted to run in the restricted Sandy Blue Stakes Friday at Del Mar with likely favorite Byrama instead of the Oaks, while on Saturday they roll all the marbles in the Alabama with their flagship filly, In Lingerie.
Such discretion could be the better part of valor. The Oaks appears to be at the mercy of San Clemente Stakes winner Eden’s Moon and American Oaks winner Lady of Shamrock, with My Gi Gi and Open Water lurking right behind. Byrama, fourth in the San Clemente, won a restricted stakes at Hollywood Park.
In Lingerie, on the other hand, broke through in a big way with a victory in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes in May, while in her last start she was third to Alabama opponents Questing and Zo Impressive in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga. Aron Wellman, president of Eclipse Thoroughbreds, was asked where his filly might find the 6 1/2 lengths that separated In Lingerie from Questing at the end of the nine-furlong CCA, and how she will deal with the Delaware Oaks winner, Grace Hall.
“Questing was very impressive that day,” Wellman said. “But since the Black-Eyed Susan the Alabama has been our main focus, even though I know that’s hard to say when you’re the 3-2 favorite in the CCA Oaks and a well-beaten third.”
John Velazquez, In Lingerie’s regular rider, was not quite rehabbed from his collarbone injury when the CCA was run, but he will be back in the saddle Saturday. Wellman also hopes the added distance will play to his filly, who is a daughter of Belmont winner Empire Maker.
“In this day and age you’ll see some pretty thin Grade 1’s,” Wellman added. “This is definitely not one of them.”
As much as the pragmatics of handicapping, the turf historian in Wellman had to get past the idea that he and his partners were running in a race like the Alabama at all.
“Last night I was looking at the horses, the owners, and the trainers who had won this race,” Wellman said Thursday, before heading to Saratoga. “It was just blowing my mind. I mean, we don’t back down from anybody, but it’s an honor to have a filly in there, especially since I think we’re in with a live shot.”
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners was launched a year ago and now numbers 17 horses, among them four stakes winners. In Lingerie races in the name of Eclipse and Gary Barber and is trained by Todd Pletcher. Wellman, who was vice-president of the Team Valor partnership group and before that headed the LGL Stable syndicate (“Let’s Get Lucky”), noted that there are “15 very enthusiastic In Lingerie partners” alongside Barber.
“Obviously, I’m not reinventing the wheel,” Wellman said. “The partnership model is an ever-evolving beast. At Team Valor, Barry Irwin provided me with experience to understand what it took to acquire horses at the highest level and maximize their potential. And I’m honored to have recently formed a joint venture with Cot Campbell and his Dogwood Stable, obviously the pioneer of racing partnerships.”
Much like it was this time last year when Royal Delta romped in the Alabama, the 3-year-old filly division is primed for a breakout performance. Wellman has done all he can to put his partners in play with In Lingerie. Now he’s left with looking for omens.
“Five years ago on my 30th birthday my partnership at the time finished second in the Del Mar Oaks with Valbenny,” he said. “Doing that one better at Saratoga on my 35th this Saturday would be pretty special.”
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