It’ll go down as a day that should’ve been awesome, but wasn’t.
Awesome Maria -- a 4-year-old daughter of Maria’s Mon -- staked her claim to supremacy in a highly competitive older filly and mare division, by turning back the challenge of Payton D’Oro to capture the Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1).
The dominant three-length score, and debate over Awesome Maria’s standing in the loaded older filly and mare division should’ve accounted for the bulk of the conversation coming out of -- what should’ve been considered -- a glorious Saturday at Belmont.
But the day was marred by an incident in the paddock prior to the race that resulted in the retirement of the reigning Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (G1) winner Unrivaled Belle.
Unrivaled Belle flipped in the paddock prior to the race. The flip resulted in her immediate scratch from the race. Trainer Bill Mott knew right away that the incident would cost his champion mare a lot more than just one race.
“She didn’t come down with a big thud, it was more of a soft landing, but when she got up I knew immediately she had broken her withers.”
The injury, according to Mott, is not always career-ending. But the fact that Unrivaled Belle is already a 5-year-old, and has considerable value as a broodmare, will keep her from ever returning to the racetrack.
“I’ve had horses come back and win stakes after they break their withers, but she’ll be retired and go on to be a broodmare.”
Unrivaled Belle’s resume didn’t need any fortification. In addition to her Breeders’ Cup triumph, she also captured such races as the La Troienne (in which she bested the great Rachel Alexandra, among others), and the Rampart at Gulfstream. She amassed just under two million dollars in career earnings. And she finished either first or second in 12 of her 14 lifetime starts.
Still, a great stretch battle with Blind Luck in this year’s edition of the La Troienne -- a race that will go down as her final career start -- suggested that Unrivaled Belle had more to offer.
A pity we won’t get to see it.
But, alas, the game goes on. And for Awesome Maria’s four opponents on Saturday, the game was over very quickly.
Awesome Maria -- as is her custom -- flashed speed from the outset. Though she ended up settling in just off of pacesetter Absinthe Minded, jockey John Velazquez wasn’t entirely pleased with the start, as Awesome Maria had to make her early move in between horses.
“She didn’t break as well as I would have liked to,” the Kentucky Derby winning jock said after the race. But he quickly added, “once I got her into gear she was going comfortably the whole way around.”
It didn’t take long.
She tracked solid fractions of 23:2, and 45:3. The testing half-mile caused Absinthe Minded to throw in the towel, and Awesome Maria assumed command just past the half-mile pole. The rest of the field appeared poised to challenge. But as they made their way home, the sensational 4-year-old filly found another gear and left them all in her wake.
“Coming to the quarter pole, I got after her and made her switch leads and down by the three-sixteenths pole, she got another gear,” Velazquez said. “Really, really nice.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled three-fifths of the scratch reduced Ogden Phipps field (Super Espresso and Life At Ten, third and fourth respectively, being the others), was quite obviously pleased with his winning filly‘s effort.
“I think she was impressive again. She’s been pretty impressive every start this year, her hardest-fought one being the last one. She’s been just very, very good. She didn’t break well but she was able to recover and find a spot there pretty quickly. After that, she was in pretty good shape.”
While many of the other stars in this extremely deep division appear poised for the Delaware Handicap on July 16th, Todd Pletcher is thinking about Saratoga for Awesome Maria, mentioning the Ruffian on July 31 as her next possible start. But before he commit’s the star filly for the race, Pletcher coyly left open the possibility of her running elsewhere if she is assigned too much weight under the race’s handicap conditions.
“We’ll stick to 1 1/8 mile races. We’ll look at the Ruffian (G1) [but also] look closely at the weights.”
Rory McIlroy’s historic U.S. Open conquest dominated the national sports conversation this weekend. The 22-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland captured one of the most coveted prizes in golf in mesmorizing fashion, trouncing the field by eight strokes while shooting four strokes better, relative to par, than any U.S. Open champion before him.
Only one thing took away from the prodigy’s landmark victory: The fact that Tiger Woods -- the sport’s king for the last decade -- was not in the field.
On her best day, Unrivaled Belle’s accomplishments do not even approach -- in either quantity or quality -- those of Tiger Woods. To suggest otherwise is highly foolish.
Despite that, drawing a parallel between these four athletes seems fitting.
Maybe the torch would’ve been passed anyway, to both McIllroy and Awesome Maria, if Woods and Unrivaled Belle had been there to contest the U.S. Open and Ogden Phipps respectively. Maybe Unrivaled Belle and Tiger Woods were both on the downside of their careers, and the injuries that kept them from competing spared them the indignity of being defeated by a younger star. Maybe it was just a matter of time before Awesome Maria and McIllroy took their rightful places at the top of their respective sports.
But it would’ve been nice to find out for sure.
Photo courtesy NYRA/Adam Coglianese
(Now that her career is over, where would you rank Unrivaled Belle on the list of the great fillies in racing history? Let us know by voting here.)