Abaco in Search of Athenia Stakes Glory

Pianist wins 2013 Gallorette.
Photo: Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club
A little more than a year after breaking her maiden, the Phipps Stable's Abaco goes in search of her first graded stakes score when she takes on a diverse field of turf fillies and mares on Saturday in the 37th running of the Grade 3, $200,000 Athenia at Belmont Park.


Abaco, a 5-year-old daughter of Giant's Causeway, made eight trips to the races before scoring her first victory in a one-mile maiden event over the inner turf at Saratoga Race Course last July. She went on to close out her 2012 campaign with three straight optional claiming wins, and in her first graded stakes appearance finished second, beaten less than a length, in the Grade 3 Suwanee in February at Gulfstream Park.


Ambitiously placed in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland Race Course, Abaco wound up sixth, and then was fourth in the restricted Speed Boat overnight stakes behind winner Samitar over a "good" Saratoga turf course. She most recently missed by a head as the favorite in the Lady Baltimore stakes on September 21 at Laurel Park, with all three races at the Athenia distance of 1 1/16 miles.


"I thought she was much the best in the Lady Baltimore, but she had all kinds of trouble in the race," said Abaco's Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey. "I'm sure trying to win a graded stakes with her - I think she's deserving of it. Whether it's Saturday or not, I don't know, but she's doing awfully well."


McGaughey, who won the 2007 Athenia with Criminologist, will give Joel Rosario a leg up aboard Abaco, who will carry 116 pounds on Saturday. The pair will leave from post position 4 at 6-1 on the morning line.


Trainer Chad Brown will send out the graded stakes-winning duo of Samitar, star of the Grade 1 Garden City in 2012, and Pianist, who finished second by a neck in the Grade 2 Ketel One Ballston Spa last time out. Both are 2-for-2 at Belmont, with Samitar also having won the Fairy Garden overnight stakes in July and Pianist owning victories in a maiden race in 2011 and the Given overnight stakes in 2012.


"It's not ideal to run them both in the same spot but there are only so many graded stakes on the turf to go around," said Brown. "They're both doing well. Samitar has run well at Belmont Park, and Pianist seems to run well fresh; we'll lead them both over there and see what happens."


Samitar, 3-2-1 from nine American starts for owner Martin Schwartz, will leave from post position 3 under jockey Javier Castellano, with the pair receiving 7-5 favoritism on the morning line.


Pianist, who scored her first graded stakes win in the Grade 3 Gallorette on May 18 at Pimlico Race Course, drew post position 5 and will carry high weight of 123 pounds. Jose Ortiz will ride the Hidden Brook Farm color-bearer, who is the second choice at 5-2 on the morning line.


Trainer Christophe Clement has saddled three Athenia winners, most recently Denomination in 2011. This year he has entered Ruthenia, fourth in last year's edition, and Lady Cohiba, who will run only if the race comes off the turf.


Ruthenia, tabbed at 6-1 on the morning line, will leave from post position 6 with jockey Jose Lezcano riding. Lady Cohiba, winner of the off-the-turf Glens Falls last time out, will have Junior Alvarado aboard if she runs.


Rounding out the field are Embarr, fifth in the Lady Baltimore; My Perfect Ten, unraced since taking the Ellis Park Turf in July, and Assateague, fourth behind Peace Preserver, Hungry Island and Better Lucky in the Grade 3 Noble Damsel on September 14. Royal Lahaina and Moment in Dixie, like Lady Cohiba, were entered main track only.




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