Close Hatches will face Princess of Sylmar and five other challengers when she attempts to extend her winning streak to four on Friday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Personal Ensign Invitational at Saratoga Race Course.
The 1 1/8-mile Personal Ensign for fillies and mares is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" race in the Distaff division. It will be shown live on MSG+ as part of the network's "Friday Live at Saratoga" series. The race attracted seven entrants, all graded stakes winners. Three have won at the Grade 1 level.
Close Hatches, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, posted her first Grade 1 victory in June 2013 when she romped by 7 ¼ lengths in the Grade 1 Mother Goose at Belmont Park and three months later took the Grade 1 Cotillion by two lengths at Parx Racing. She was second in her sophomore finale, finishing 4 ¼ lengths behind Beholder, later named Champion Three-Year-Old filly, in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Distaff in November at Santa Anita.
A Juddmonte Farms homebred, Close Hatches began her 4-year-old season by posting a pair of 1 ¼-length victories in gate-to-wire fashion at Oaklawn Park in the Grade 2 Azeri in March and Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap in April.
She had a tougher assignment in the Grade 1, 1 1/16-mile Ogden Phipps on July 7 at Belmont, drawing post 1 against a field that included Beholder and four-time Grade 1 winner Princess of Sylmar. Deftly handed by Joel Rosario, Close Hatches rated six lengths behind the early leader in third, got off the rail with 4 ½ furlongs to travel, claimed the lead before the five-sixteenths pole, and fended off multiple challenges in the stretch to prevail by a head over a hard-charging Princess of Sylmar.
Antipathy finished a neck behind the winner in third, and she hit the wire just three-quarters of a length in front of fourth-place finisher Beholder.
Considering Close Hatches has won all three times she has had more than 60 days between starts, Mott decided to train the daughter of First Defence up to the Personal Ensign following the Phipps.
"She's always run pretty good off the bench," said Mott. "Her works have been good, and I think we've got enough in her. She's always run very well when she's had time between races."
Mott realizes Close Hatches will have a limited margin for error in the Personal Ensign, which drew four of the top five finishers from the Phipps.
"I'm sure it will be a very competitive group of horses," said Mott. "They were all pretty well bunched up in the Phipps. She came out the winner, but it was a close finish."
Joel Rosario has the return call on Close Hatches, the 8-5 morning-line favorite who drew post position 6.
Belle Gallantey, beaten 1 ¾ lengths when fifth in the Phipps, returned in the Grade 1, 1 ¼-mile Delaware Handicap on July 12 and defeated Princess of Sylmar by 2 ¾ lengths. Princess of Sylmar was bet down to 1-5, but Belle Gallantey led from start to finish.
Princess of Sylmar, owned by Ed Stanco, is unbeaten in two starts at Saratoga, having won last year's Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and Grade 1 Alabama. She added a victory in the Grade 1 Beldame Invitational in September at Belmont before finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Prior to the Phipps, she won the Cat Cay, her 4-year-old debut, in April at Aqueduct.
"She just missed in the Phipps," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Princess of Sylmar. "She ran a big race [in the Phipps] and didn't get a proper set-up in the Delaware Handicap and maybe didn't run her 'A' race, but she has been training exceptionally well and we believe she is sitting on a good effort."
Javier Castellano will ride Princess of Sylmar, the 9-5 morning-line second choice, from post 7.
Belle Gallantey, a 5-year-old, has vastly improved since being claimed for $35,000 at Aqueduct by trainer Rudy Rodriguez on behalf of an ownership group headed by Michael Dubb. She rattled off entry-level allowance and starter allowance wins on the inner track before taking an optional claimer by 3 ½ lengths in May at Belmont Park. After rallying from fifth in the Phipps, she made all the pace in the Delaware Handicap.
"We wanted to run her in a [second-level allowance], but they didn't use the race, and we didn't have any other place to run her," Rodriguez of the decision to run Belle Gallantey in the Phipps. "She got in a little trouble that day; the trip she had wasn't the best she could have had. But she did good and got beat [1 ¾ lengths] for everything against the best horses in the country. She likes to go long, and that's probably the key for her.
"They hustled us to go in [the Delaware Handicap], and we took a chance," the trainer continued. "I told the stakes coordinator to call Mr. Dubb. He called him, and Mike [Dubb] called me 10, 20 minutes later and told me to put her in. She liked the track and everything worked out perfectly. You have to be in the right place at the right time."
Although Belle Gallantey had been running in sprints before she was claimed, Rodriguez said he and the owners thought she had tremendous potential around two turns.
"That's why we claimed her during the winter," the trainer explained. "We know she can go long, and during the winter not too many horses can go two turns."
Belle Gallantey, 8-1, will leave from post 5 with Jose Ortiz in the irons.
Antipathy, third in the Phipps at 30-1, returned to win the Grade 3 Shuvee Handicap by two lengths in the mud on July 27 at Saratoga over Stanwyck, who also was entered in the Personal Ensign. The Shuvee was contested at the Personal Ensign's 1 1/8-mile distance.
"We need some racing luck and for her to run her 'A' race [to win the Personal Ensign]," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who conditions the 4-year-old Godolphin Racing homebred. "It's a tough group, but we're happy to be in there, and we'll see how it goes. Hopefully, we'll have a good day. I think she [belongs among the best in the division]. She missed by only a half-length in the Phipps and came back and won."
Irad Ortiz, Jr. will ride Antipathy, the 5-1 third choice on the morning line, from post 1.
Coming in from California is Fiftyshadesofhay, who won the Grade 2 Ruffian in May at Belmont. She subsequently has finished third in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis in June at Churchill Downs and fourth in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch on August 2 over Del Mar's Polytrack.
Completing the field are Stanwyck, who won the Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm Handicap in October at Belmont, and Majestic River, who captured the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher on July 27 at Monmouth Park in her most recent start.
The field for the Grade 1, $500,000 Personal Ensign Invitational:
I Ortiz, Jr.
K P. McLaughlin
J A. Shirreffs
Majestic River (KY)
T A. Pletcher
J R. Velazquez
Belle Gallantey (KY)
J L. Ortiz
R R. Rodriguez
Close Hatches (KY)
W I. Mott
Princess of Sylmar (PA)
T A. Pletcher