SARATOGA SPRINGS — The wait is over.
For us, anyway. Probably not for Malathaat, though.
For the first time since April 30, the talents of the best 3-year-old filly in North America will be on display on the racetrack again, as she is the 2-5 morning-line favorite against just three rivals in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
She’s so good that trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Shadwell Stable had considered running her against males in the Belmont Stakes on June 5, but skipped it and waited for Saratoga.
She’s so good that she’s remained undefeated from five career starts despite a habit of waiting for the competition once she gets to the lead, a quirk that Pletcher perhaps had considered trying to train out of her, but …
“Not changing anything right now,” he said with a chuckle on Friday.
And why would you? Malathaat has won by less than a length in her last three starts going back to the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct on Dec. 5, but has clearly established herself as the division leader.
This season, she closed strongly under Joel Rosario to just get up and catch Pass the Champagne in the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland, then won the Kentucky Oaks under John Velazquez (who will ride her in the CCA Oaks) with a dramatic stretch duel over Search Results.
“She’s pretty smart,” Pletcher said. “She knows when she gets to the lead. I asked Johnny, the Oaks seemed like a nail-biter, but he said he was always confident.”
“It’s hard to say if you’ve gotten to the bottom of her, because once she gets to the lead, she waits,” Velazquez said. “It’s what she does. She’s not a horse that’s just going to go on past horses and open up. But I’m happy with that, because whatever she has, you know she’s giving it to you.
“You just have to keep her busy and make sure she keeps her mind on running. There’s nothing you can do. You can see when we hooked up last time in the Oaks, she looked like she was going to go by her, and all of a sudden she put a head in front and kind of stayed like that from the eighth pole to the wire. And that’s what she’s done.”
Since Malathaat hasn’t had a race in almost three months, there may have been a silver lining to her final breeze for the CCA Oaks last Saturday on the main track.
Working in company with stablemate Zaajel, Malathaat cruised up behind two other horses during the busy mid-morning training session, then she and Zaajel got outside and finished in a very fast 48.05 for a half-mile.
“We caught some traffic, got a little dirt in her face, she jumped into the bridle … you could argue it was a good thing,” Pletcher said. “She worked in 48 and hadn’t run in a little while, so it kind of got her mind on business.”
The Malathaat camp has been high on the filly since they purchased her for $1.05 million at the 2019 Keeneland Select Yearling Sale.
She has done nothing to dissuade them of that opinion.
The daughter of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin got a late start to her 2-year-old season and didn’t run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, but broke her maiden in October, then jumped right into stakes company to win the Tempted at Aqueduct by 7 3/4 lengths in November. She didn’t wait that day, simply blowing away inferior competition on the front end.
Her Demoiselle, Ashland and Kentucky Oaks wins have come from off the pace.
“I said from Day 1, she’s always been a special horse, and she’s shown that so far,” Velazquez said. “Obviously, she has to come back and run the way she’s been running. You hope that specialness and that class comes out.”
“She’s always been very good,” Pletcher said. “A great baby, exceptional 2-year-old, and she’s carried it on to now. She’s just one of those horses who’s done everything right her whole life. So expectations are always high, especially when you have an undefeated one, and you just want to keep that streak going.”
It is Saratoga, after all, where big favorites have some history of getting beat.
And the very short field — which includes Kentucky Oaks seventh-place finisher Maracuja, lightly raced Rockpaperscissors making her stakes debut, and Oaks fourth-place finisher Clairiere — could present a different kind of puzzle for Velazquez to solve.
Malathaat will break from the rail, with a short-ish run to the first turn in the nine-furlong CCA Oaks.
Grade II Rachel Alexandra winner Clairiere is the top contender to beat her, after having finished second in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, just three lengths back in the Kentucky Oaks and third by a length and a quarter to Pletcher’s long shot Zaajel in the Grade II Mother Goose at Belmont on June 26.
“It’s always an uncomfortable thing when you have so few horses in the race,” Velazquez said. “Now, everybody knows where you are. Post 1. So I have to make a decision.
“Obviously, I have to talk to Todd about this. But I’m going to come out of there running and try to get the position I want, that I’m not trapped by three horses in there and they never let her run. Let her go into the first turn, and once she’s there, as long as she’s comfortable, leave her alone.
“There’s only three horses against her. They’re all going to be on top of me.”
“It’s always a concern,” Pletcher said. “Sometimes a short field can be the trickiest. We’ll let her run away from there and see how the race unfolds and let Johnny determine where he wants to position her, then hope for a clean trip.”
Pletcher said he and Shadwell VP/general manager Rick Nichols will again take a close look at running Malathaat against males somewhere down the line.
That can wait. For now, the focus is getting past this one, then shooting for the Grade I Alabama on Aug. 21.
“It’s Saratoga. It always worries you,” Pletcher said. “Anytime you lead the best horse over there, you just want things to go smoothly. We’ve got a lot of confidence in her ability, so hopefully it goes according to plan.”
Saturday’s card will also include the Grade III Caress, a turf sprint for fillies and mares 4 and up.
The New York-bred Robin Sparkles, whose name is taken from a character on the TV show “How I Met Your Mother,” is the 6-5 morning-line favorite off two straight wins, one of which was her first stakes score, in the Mount Vernon at Belmont Park in May.
She has finished no worse than second in eight starts since breaking her maiden at the same distance as the Caress last summer. She has run against open company, but this will be her first shot at a graded stakes.
“That last race was like a stake, and it was open company,” trainer Bruce Brown told the New York Racing Association. “I think she proved she can run with those. Ideally, I’d like to see it on the firmer side, but I think she can handle pretty much anything.”
Not far behind Robin Sparkles on the morning line is 7-5 Caravel, a Pennsylvania-bred who gained celebrity chef Bobby Flay as a majority owner after she romped by 4 1/2 lengths in the Goldwood at Monmouth Park last time out.
Like Robin Sparkles, Caravel has done little wrong in her career, winning six of eight, with two thirds. She has also competed against open company more than she has against state-breds in Pennsylvania.
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