04/15/2017 4:42PM

Lady Aurelia wins Giant's Causeway Stakes in prep for Royal Ascot

Coady Photography
Lady Aurelia and jockey John Velazquez win the Giant's Causeway Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths Saturday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The winner's circle was crowded following Lady Aurelia's season-opening victory in the $100,000 Giant's Causeway Stakes on Saturday on the Keeneland turf course. Ownership partners Barbara Banke, George Bolton, and Peter Leidel, trainer Wesley Ward, jockey John Velazquez, and other associates were all smiles as they celebrated the European champion's successful return to the races against elders, and a pending return trip to the renowned Royal Ascot meeting.

However, there was one person whom Ward immediately singled out after the race as being instrumental to the filly's success. Julio Garcia, who rode Lady Aurelia to victory in her career debut in April 2016 at Keeneland, is the filly's regular partner in the mornings and seamlessly handed off the baton to Velazquez with two solid works over the Keeneland turf course in the last two weeks.

"A lot of credit goes out to Julio Garcia," Ward said. "He gets on seven or eight horses [for me] every morning. He gets on [Lady Aurelia] every day, and he just gets her to melt in his hands. He made the job a lot easier for Johnny today, with what we want her to do – get her back, let her settle, come with a run."

Lady Aurelia ($4) did settle well in the Giant's Causeway, sitting in fifth early as Ruby Notion took the field through sharp opening fractions of 21.79 and 44.86 seconds. Velazquez spun his filly wide into the lane for clear running room as she pounced, and the outcome was never in doubt from there, with Lady Aurelia striking the lead and powering clear for a 2 1/2-length victory. The final time on turf rated firm was 1:02.40.

Nobody's Fault rallied to edge Ruby Notion by a neck for second, with Triple Chelsea 1 1/4 lengths behind those to round out the superfecta. Pretty Perfection, sent away as the second choice behind Lady Aurelia off three straight wins to start her season, was never a factor in eighth.

The Giant's Causeway was intended as Lady Aurelia's prep for a return trip to Royal Ascot in England, with the Group 1 King's Stand Stakes the targeted race. After the race, Ward confirmed that Lady Aurelia had punched her ticket with her stellar return effort.

"She should be perfect," Ward said.

Lady Aurelia has now won four of five career starts. After winning her Keeneland debut by 7 1/2 lengths last year, she made her first trip to Royal Ascot, annexing the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes by seven lengths. She then captured the Group 1 Prix Morny Stakes in France and finished third, beaten two lengths, in the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes in England.