St. John’s River has been knocking on the door for most of 2011, tomorrow is her time to kick it in. In a race that includes two-time grade 1 winner, It’s Tricky, Kentucky Oaks victor, Plum Pretty, Queen’s Plate heroine, Inglorious, and Black-Eyed Susan winner, Royal Delta, why am I expecting the filly without a big, breakout victory to be the one who wins the Alabama, the most important race so far this year for three-year-old fillies? My simple answer is distance, distance, and more distance.
The daughter of distance loving sire Include, St. John’s River did not begin her career until last December for Louisiana based trainer Andrew Leggio. She won smartly in her second start in a Fair Grounds maiden race in January, and has been swimming with the big girls ever since. Despite the quick ascent to the best races of her division, only finish lines that came a bit too soon, have prevented her from being on quite a roll.
On March 26, in her fourth lifetime start, St. John’s River closed like a female freight train to narrowly miss in the Grade 2 Fair Ground Oaks at odds of nearly 8-1. That 1 1/16 mile race resulted in a second place finish, but served as a perfect prep for a trip to Churchill Downs.
On May 6, she was sent off at odds of 16-1 in the Kentucky Oaks. St. John’s River stumbled badly out of the gate from an extreme outside post position, before rallying boldly under the twin spires. At the wire, Plum Pretty held on by a desperate neck to win the female counterpart to the Kentucky Derby. That day, the distance was 1 1/8 miles.
After the big effort in Louisville, Leggio decided to give his new star some time off to hopefully be at her best for a big summer/fall campaign that would conclude with a championship.
“I like a lot of time, especially with these young fillies,” Leggio said.
Her return to the races came on July 9 in the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks. Against an admittedly far weaker field that she will see in the Alabama, the Dede McGehee owned bay filly battled with a slow early pace at a distance (1 1/16 miles) too short for her to be at her best. She still was able to gain her first stakes win, but just barely. St. John’s River got the win on the shadow of the wire, but moreover, she got a perfect prep for tomorrow’s showdown at Saratoga.
Leggio spoke of her lead-up to the Alabama, “She’s got three seconds, and with a little luck we could have won all three of those races. Hopefully 1 ¼ miles will be to her liking. She always makes a big run, and, hopefully, she’ll do the same thing next week.”
Yes Andrew, she will appreciate the distance. She is bred for the classic distance top-to-bottom. Unlike some horses that can close fast on shorter races, but flatten out at the longer distances, St. John’s River is a filly that is crying out for ten furlongs.
And tomorrow she gets it. She also faces an extremely talented group of five other sophomore fillies who also are looking to move to the head of their class with a big win in the Alabama, but there can only be winner.
The narrow losses are in the rear-view mirror, at the 1 ¼ miles of the historic Alabama Stakes, the time is now for St. John’s River.