08/15/2009 12:00AM

Whirlie Bertie leads Gardenia parade

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HENDERSON, Ky. - In a race with plenty of speed, Whirlie Bertie proved fastest of the fast Saturday when giving 54-year-old jockey Larry Melancon his third victory in the 28th running of the Grade 3, , the annual showcase at Ellis Park.

"Easy game, huh, Steve?" a grinning Melancon asked trainer Steve Margolis when returning to the winner's circle following the 3 1/2-length, front-running score.

"You just played cat-and-mouse with them," replied Margolis.

In a field of nine fillies and mares, Whirlie Bertie broke sharpest from the one-mile, doglegged chute when gunning to the early lead. Stalked down the backstretch and through the far turn by Abby's Angel, Whirlie Bertie pulled away again down the stretch, finishing in 1:35.80 over a fast track. Whirlie Bertie, dismissed as the third-longest shot, returned $24 with her fourth win, and first in a stakes, from nine lifetime starts.

Whirlie Bertie is a 4-year-old filly by Stormin Fever out of De Bertie, one of the standout mares campaigned by the family of Bert and Elaine Klein, who were on hand from Louisville for the victory. Bert Klein is listed as the breeder of Whirlie Bertie.

"She really was training great into this," said Margolis, who normally is based in Kentucky but has taken his main stable this summer to Delaware Park. "I've been back here since Tuesday and noticed how well she was doing. She really put it all together today."

Melancon also won the Gardenia in 1990 with Evangelical and in 2007 with Pleasant Hill.

"I thought she had a big chance coming off that last race," a runner-up finish in the July 25 Ellis Park Turf, said Melancon.

Before an estimated crowd of 4,000, and some 30 minutes after a light sprinkle helped to cool off a typically hot and humid afternoon, Whirlie Bertie went in fractions of 23.69, 46.74, and 1:10.92 with Abby's Angel and jockey Jon Court poised to strike from her outside flank.

Down the stretch, however, the potential duel became a one-horse parade, as Whirlie Bertie cruised home while Abby's Angel held second by a neck over Lady's Laughter. De Star Express was another 3 1/4 lengths back in fourth, while Unforgotten, the lukewarm 5-2 favorite, was never a factor in finishing sixth.

The $2 exacta (2-4) paid $130 and the $2 trifecta (2-3-4) paid $490.80.

The 28-day Ellis meet runs through Sept. 7.