Since arriving to trainer Bob Baffert in Southern California, globetrotting Vale Dori has been nothing but successful. In what was built up to be a showdown between her and champion female sprinter Finest City, Vale Dori prevailed in the 1 1/8 miles Santa Margarita Stakes, giving the mare her first Grade 1 win in the United States.
With Mike Smith, the most recent jockey of both mares, absent to ride at Oaklawn Park, Baffert and Ian Kruljac had to find replacements. Rafael Bejarano hopped aboard Vale Dori, while Tyler Baze picked up Finest City, the reigning Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint champion.
The bettors sent Vale Dori off as the 6-5 favorite over Finest City at 8-5. The two broke side-by-side from the gate, with Vale Dori in the two hole and Finest City in the three. Vale Dori broke a step slow, but Bejarano hustled her to the lead. Baze made sure Finest City was just to their outside. Show Stealer, Perfect Pic, and Autumn Flower settled behind the top pair, and Wild At Heart and Lady Tapit followed suit. Estrechada was left trailing the field.
Vale Dori ticked off easy fractions of :23.50, :48.23, and 1:12.21 through the first three-quarters of a mile. Baze then began to pump on Finest City and the top pair effortlessly separated themselves from the field. Every time the Breeders’ Cup champ gave chase though, Vale Dori and Bejarano pulled away even more. The mile went in 1:36.37 before Vale Dori hit the wire in 1:48.81, winning by 1 ½ lengths.
Vale Dori delivered $4.60, $2.60, and $2.60, and Finest City returned $3.00 and $2.80. Autumn Flower, who finished 9 ½ lengths behind Finest City at 50-1, paid $10.20 to show.
Lady Tapit, Estrechada, Wild At Heart, Perfect Pic, and Show Stealer competed the order of finish.
“She was definitely ready today,” Bejarano said of Vale Dori. “I knew Finest City would be tough but I was only thinking about the break. (Vale Dori) was more focused today, more consistent. She broke beautifully from the gate. When I saw that Finest City didn’t want to go to the lead, I just took control of the race and took it from there.”
When asked about Finest City, Baze commented, “She ran great. This is probably just a little too far for her but she ran really well. I give the winner credit, she’d never been headed before and we were head and head the whole way.”
“My filly ran her eyeballs out,” said Kruljac. “Running second in a Grade 1 isn’t all bad. I’m happy with how she ran.”
Owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum, the Santa Margarita was Vale Dori’s fifth straight win, and her share of the $400,000 purse raised her career earnings to $934,943. She now holds an impressive record of 13-8-3-1.
By Christine Oser