05/06/2017 2:55PM

Roca Rojo narrowly beats Believe in Bertie in Distaff Turf Mile

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Emily Shields
Roca Rojo (No. 6), under Florent Geroux, outfinishes Believe in Bertie to win the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile by a head.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In a female turf division that is in some disarray, Roca Rojo threw her hat into the ring as a mare to contend with this year, posting a hard-fought victory in the Grade 2, $300,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile on Saturday at the namesake track, her first start since December.

The Distaff Turf Mile was expected to mark the 2017 return of three-time Grade 1 winner Miss Temple City, an Eclipse Award finalist in the division last year along with recently retired champion Tepin and the popular Lady Eli, who lost her first start of 2017 to the streaking Dickinson. But trainer Graham Motion scratched his star mare, who had defeated Roca Rojo by a nose in the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes in December, due to concerns about the condition of the turf course after rain the past two days.

Trainer Chad Brown had no concerns about the turf – officially rated “good” at post time – with Roca Rojo, a winner on soft courses in both Ireland and the U.S.

"She's been training really well," Brown said of Roca Rojo, a recent workmate for Lady Eli. "She's a really versatile horse. We knew she could handle soft footing, and equally as good on firm."

Roca Rojo ($4.60) and jockey Florent Geroux had to contend with another filly on a win streak in Believe in Bertie, who had won four straight races, including three stakes, at Fair Grounds. Believe in Bertie got things her own way on the front end under Shaun Bridgmohan, taking the field through modest opening splits of 25.23 and 49.20 seconds.

Roca Rojo, who had tracked in second throughout, began to pull up on her flank, putting the pressure on through a quickening six furlongs in 1:12.91. Believe in Bertie refused to cede easily, and the two engaged in battle for the length of the stretch, with Roca Rojo prevailing by a short head.

The final time was 1:37.53.

“We were concerned about the pace, and it played out that way,” said Brown, who saddled the first two graded stakes winners on the Kentucky Derby undercard. “It was a soft pace with a very good horse setting the fractions, a real solid horse. [Roca Rojo] had her work cut out for her to run her down.”

Another 3 1/4 lengths behind the top two was Linda, a graded stakes winner on the Churchill turf last fall.

Roca Rojo has now won six of eight career starts and added the Distaff Turf Mile to her victory in last fall's Grade 3 Athenia Stakes at Belmont Park. Brown said the filly will head back to New York to target the Grade 1 Just a Game Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

"That makes a lot of sense," Brown said. "In five weeks in New York at her home track."

Miss Temple City could also head to New York, with the Grade 3 Beaugay Stakes next Saturday as an alternate prep for an anticipated return trip to Royal Ascot next month.

"I am not comfortable running on turf this soft off a layoff," Motion said. "There is a good chance she could run next week in the Beaugay, which would allow her to prepare for another [trip to England]."