07/04/2014 10:45AM

Lawrence hoping Pixie Dust can work magic in Delaware Oaks

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Barbara D. Livingston
Chuck Lawrence, formerly a top steeplechase jockey, trains Pixie Dust, who races beyond 6 1/2 furlongs for the first time in the Delaware Oaks on Saturday.

Chuck Lawrence has deep roots in the Mid-Atlantic racing community, and the Delaware Oaks is more than just another race on the calendar to him. He comes into Saturday’s Grade 2, $300,000 Oaks as the trainer of Pixie Dust, a somewhat unusual entrant based on her race history, but a player nonetheless.

[Delaware Oaks: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

“My grandfather trained, my father trained, a lot on the half-mile tracks,” said Lawrence, who races as James L. Lawrence II. “The Delaware Oaks has always been an important race around here, and growing up it has always been a race I wanted to win.”

Pixie Dust’s chances in Saturday’s Oaks are difficult to judge because she will be attempting to do several things for the first time. A Pennsylvania-bred, she has made all four of her starts in statebred company at Parx and Penn National, and this is her first race against open company. She will also be racing beyond 6 1/2 furlongs for the first time.

It is possible that she will be able to clear both hurdles. Pixie Dust has the highest Beyer Speed Figures in the Oaks, as she was given an 88 in her two most recent starts, an allowance win and a close third-place finish in the New Start Stakes.

More importantly, perhaps, is that sprinting may have been more difficult for Pixie Dust than two-turn racing will be. She has shown the ability to turn off in her races and then pick up the tempo when asked. With a fast pace expected to be set in the Oaks by Honey’s Ryan and Image of Anna, the ability to relax early may be key.

Lawrence, 48, gets aboard Pixie Dust occasionally when she trains, and he said she has been giving him the right signs. Lawrence knows what he speaks of. He has a lot of experience in the saddle.

Lawrence took out a rider's license in 1982 when he was 16. After a few years he switched over to jumpers, where he had great success for Hall of Fame trainer Burley Cocks.

“I rode for fun for my dad for a few years and then got too big,” he said. “I moved on to steeplechase and was the leading steeplechase rider twice, in 1989 and 1993.”

Among Lawrence’s steeplechase mounts was Warm Spell, whom he rode in all but one of his starts in 1993-94 for trainer John Griggs. Lawrence won the 1993 New York Turf Writers Cup on Warm Spell at 161 pounds and the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Grand National on him at 156 pounds. Warm Spell was the champion steeplechaser of 1994.

Nowadays, Lawrence is more of a gentleman farmer.

“On Sundays we have kind of an easy day at the barn," he said. "I’m kind of a once-a-week rider. Pixie Dust is one of my favorites. She’ll come right off the bridle for you and do what you want. She has exhibited that she wants to go two turns.”

Lawrence has worked Pixie Dust five furlongs over the seven-furlong synthetic track at Fair Hill several times. He points out that when you do that, the gallop-out comes around a second turn, something he thinks has prepared her for the 1 1/16-mile Oaks.

Lawrence realizes he is taking a shot in the Oaks, but as her owner-breeder he has the freedom to do so.

"The race is right in our backyard,” he said, “and I have nobody to answer to except for my family.”

Lawrence goes way back with Pixie Dust’s family. He trained and was part-owner of her dam, Seagrapes, when she raced in 2000 and 2001.

“She was a very talented New York-bred and won second time out for us at Aqueduct,” he said. “She fractured sesamoids at Belmont Park but we were able to save her, and I acquired her then.”

Seagrapes, now deceased, has had two foals earn more than $100,000, and Pixie Dust, with two wins from four starts and almost $50,000 in earnings, appears to be developing into her best yet.