SARATOGA SPRINGS — Trainer Rob Atras interrupted himself while answering a media question in the winner’s circle on Saturday.
“She won again,” he said with a laugh, glancing at the replay and perhaps needing confirmation from the enormous video board in the Saratoga Race Course infield to make sure it really happened.
It really did.
Sent off as the longest shot on the toteboard, at 14-1, the Atras-trained Maracuja got up in the final two strides to catch the best 3-year-old filly in the country, Malathaat, and win the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks by a head.
Malathaat, a two-time Grade I winner who hadn’t raced since the Kentucky Oaks on April 30, lost for the first time in six career starts, and nearly pulled out the win as the 1-5 favorite, anyway, despite looking like a pro wrestler fighting off two rivals who had license to tap in and out for each other at will.
She felt pressure from Maracuja on the first turn while jockey John Velazquez attempted to keep her from getting boxed in after having broken from the No. 1 post in the four-horse field.
Maracuja and jockey Ricardo Santana got a breather when Clairiere and Irad Ortiz ranged up to battle Malathaat on the backstretch and around the second turn. Then Maracuja got back in the game as they went three-wide coming off the turn, and got the pin — er, the win — at the last second, after Clairiere backed out of the duel at the eighth pole.
“I didn’t really think I could beat that filly, to be honest,” said the 36-year-old Atras, who won the first Grade I of his career. “The way the race shaped up, maybe she [Malathaat] got softened up a bit. She fought right to the wire, too. But I didn’t expect to beat her.”
“That’s the most disappointing thing … I just feel badly for her, that she suffered that first loss,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “But she was game in defeat.”
Atras, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a former assistant to Robertino Diodoro, struck out on his own as a head trainer in the winter of 2019, at Aqueduct.
He scored his first two graded stakes when American Power won the Grade III Toboggan at Aqueduct in January and Chateau won the Grade III Tom Fool in March.
In Malathaat, his filly Maracuja was facing a horse who had finished her 2-year-old season in the Grade II Demoiselle, then moved to the head of the class in 2021 by winning the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland and the Grade I Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, while trained by Pletcher, who will be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame on Aug. 6.
The presence of Malathaat in the CCA Oaks may have scared away some rivals, leaving the race with such a short field, and the betting public certainly supported her with confidence.
And she nearly ran a winning race, but came up just short against a filly she faced in the Kentucky Oaks, where Maracuja was seventh after what Atras described as a rocky trip that didn’t allow her to find her best stride. She found it on Saturday.
“She loves the two turns, she puts a lot into her gallops every day. The further the better for her,” Atras said. “Sometimes against a 1-9, I don’t expect to win. It’s never over ’til it’s over. We needed every part of the mile and an eighth to win.
“When they turned for home, I thought we had a shot. It looked like we definitely were going to be second. As the wire kept getting closer, she just really laid it down. Todd’s filly, I didn’t think we were going to get by her at the end.”
Pletcher had been leery of the No. 1 post before the race, believing that Velazquez would have to use Malathaat a little more than was ideal to stay out of a box around the first turn.
They were able to avoid that, but paid the price with a first quarter-mile in 23.38 seconds and a half in 47.13, pretty quick for a mile-and-an-eighth race.
“The 23-and-1 and 47 were a little quicker than we wanted, but when you’re in the 1 hole in a short field, you kind of have a target on your back,” Pletcher said. “So you’re not looking to sit in the pocket and potentially get hemmed in. We let her run to the first turn, and I think off the layoff it proved to be a little too much.
“That’s why we wanted to get out of the 1 hole. Irad [on Clairiere] made a pretty aggressive premature move at her, and I think that probably was just that little bit of breather we were hoping to get down the backside.”
Still, Malathaat, running along the rail for the whole race, never surrendered down the stretch, once Maracuja had taken over for Clairiere.
Atras may have had some nerve-racking moments, but Santana rode Maracuja confidently and timed his closing run perfectly.
“She was running comfortably,” Santana said. “I had some pressure on the side from the 4 [Clairiere on the backstretch], and I just let my filly take a deep breath. As soon as I took her back out, she came rolling. She ran a great race today.”
“He’s one of the strongest hand riders in the game, and any time I put him on a horse I know I’m going to get a top ride,” Atras said. “She broke really sharp, which I was happy with, and she was kind of right there. They all seemed like they were coming, and I thought Ricardo made a smart move by backing off and coming around the outside. What a race.”
“You have to play the cards you’re dealt,” Velazquez said. “She [Malathaat] was doing great. She was comfortable in what she was doing, but she had to fight the whole way around, and obviously set it up for somebody else. She’s a great horse, and you can’t take that away from her.”
“She ran great, just got a little tired the last part,” Pletcher said. “But she fought hard, and it was a big effort off a little bit of a layoff.”
CARAVEL WINS CARESS
Also on the card, Caravel used a strong closing move to pass Robin Sparkles and hold off In Good Spirits to win the Grade III Caress by 2 1/2 lengths, a turf sprint for fillies and mares 4 and up.
It was Caravel’s third straight stakes win, while running in a graded stakes for the first time for trainer/owner/breeder Elizabeth Merryman. She sold a majority interest in the filly to Bobby Flay after a victory in the Goldwood at Monmouth Park on June 25, and will now turn over training duties to Graham Motion while retaining an ownership share.
They want to get Caravel to the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in November.
“It’s pretty amazing. You watch Saratoga and just think it’s the place to be,” Merryman said. “To come up here with a filly like that, it’s amazing.
“Bobby Flay now owns a majority interest in her, and we made a plan when he was interested in buying to make that change. That was something I was in agreement with from the time of the sale of the majority of her. Graham is in the next barn to me at Fair Hill [in Maryland]. It’ll all be good.”
Jakarta, 6-1 on the morning line, was scratched from the race in the morning, then was re-entered for purse money only, 20 minutes before the card started.
She finished last of six.
“Jakarta was inadvertently scratched out of the Grade III, $200,0000 Caress. As a result, Jakarta will run for purse money only,” New York Racing Association director of communications Patrick McKenna said.
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