SARATOGA SPRINGS — Order was restored on Saturday.
Then again, was it ever really knocked off axis?
The rainbow suggested otherwise, perhaps a sign that Malathaat was back in the good graces of the racing gods, after having lost for the first time in her sparkling career four weeks ago in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Race Course.
But on Saturday, she didn’t re-establish herself as the top 3-year-old filly in the country so much as she reinforced that standing, by winning the 141st Grade I Alabama by a length and a half under John Velazquez in front of a 35,802 in paid admission.
Soon after the race, a crescent of rainbow sprouted from the Saratoga grandstand skyline, like it did when Diversify won the Whitney in 2018, and Malathaat’s typically stoic trainer Todd Pletcher admitted to having allowed for a quick fist pump in celebration.
“A little bit, yeah … yeah,” he said.
If he was grinning, you couldn’t tell, since Pletcher has been wearing a facemask on the Saratoga grounds since he returned to his barn and the track on Friday following a positive test for COVID-19 that had put him in isolation.
His words were enough to express the satisfaction of getting Malathaat back to the winner’s circle that was denied her last time by a burdensome trip in a short field that she nearly overcame, anyway, losing the CCA Oaks by a head to long shot Maracuja. On Saturday, Malathaat and jockey John Velazquez were in command all the way.
“Last time, it was kind of difficult to figure out the right tactics, and we kind of got tag-teamed as you’d expect to, being in a prohibitive favorite type of situation,” Pletcher said. “Today, we drew a better post and were able to find her rhythm, and she showed why she’s the best 3-year-old filly in the country.
“I don’t think she was overly criticized for her defeat … I feel like she’s as good as we’ve ever had, and I think she stepped up today and redeemed herself the way you’d expect her to.”
Breaking from the No. 6 post in the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama against six rivals, including Maracuja, Malathaat stumbled at the start, but gathered herself quickly and found running room in the back of the pack while four wide down the frontstretch the first time.
Velazquez got her a little closer to the inside on the first turn and still had her clear of traffic down the backstretch while running mid-pack.
Malathaat stayed outside while gradually gaining ground on Played Hard, Will’s Secret and Army Wife inside the half-mile pole.
With clear sailing on the outside as they straightened for home, Malathaat took over inside the eighth pole and gobbled up ground to win without a threat from Clairiere and Irad Ortiz Jr., who came from last place early in the first half-mile to win the race for second place by a half-length over Army Wife. CCA Oaks winner Maracuja finished last.
“I was thinking that Irad’s horse was coming from way back, and I was expecting that,” Velazquez said. “She was not close to the pace, so in the back of my head, I was thinking that’s a horse who can come back, so you have to watch out for it.
“Last time, there was no speed at all. So, we made a decision to go to the first turn and if she was on the lead, then she was on the lead. She was on the lead and everybody chased us. Today, it was easier. The speed showed up. I saved the ground in the first turn. I didn’t chase. I knew I was comfortable where I was and she did it for me.”
“We never felt like the distance would be a problem,” Pletcher said. “The weather got a little tricky, and they made the decision to go around three times with the tractors and harrow it, which left it a pretty deep, demanding surface, but that probably played to her benefit at the end of the day.
“With the exception of the stumble at the start, I felt pretty good the whole way. She recovered and got in good position. She was in the clear. The thing we wanted today was just to allow her to run her race and let her get into that big stride she has and comfortable rhythm and keep coming.”
Malathaat was never comfortable in the CCA Oaks, never got a breather, while fending off pressure alternately from Maracuja and Clairiere, then Maracuja again. She almost won, anyway.
On Saturday, she punched back. And so did her trainer, albeit in his own discreet way.
“Anytime you have an undefeated Kentucky Oaks winner get beat, it’s disappointing,” he said. “She’s as good a filly as we’ve ever had, and I think she’s best 3-year- old filly in the country and you want to keep that record intact.
“Last time, I spent way too much time overanalyzing the race, and this time I decided I wasn’t going to do that. There wasn’t a clear pace, there wasn’t going to be a fast pace, but the main thing was to just let her do her thing.”
When jockey Jose Ortiz said “there was no speed in there,” he meant everybody else.
His filly, Technical Analysis, certainly had plenty to burn.
She blasted to the front out of the starting gate and never looked back in winning the Grade II Lake Placid by 3 1/2 lengths on a yielding Inner Turf on the Alabama undercard.
Sent off as the even-money betting favorite, Technical Analysis backed up her win in the Grade III Lake George on a firm turf course on July 23, and further convinced trainer Chad Brown that the best strategy with this filly is to play catch-me-if-you-can.
“Too often, we’ve been caught in these paceless races where sometimes we have the best horse and it blows up on you,” Brown said. “So if my horses have some speed, like this one, I’m going to send them out there.
“This filly is starting to remind me of a nice horse we used to train named Dayatthespa and I told Jose that in the paddock. She ended up being a champion horse for us down the road, and as she got older, she showed a lot of speed and went to the lead. I can see a lot of similarities with this horse, so I’m not going to take anything away from her.”
“We knew there was no speed in there, so our options were limited,” Ortiz said. “We didn’t want to get stuck being behind a slow pace. The turf was pretty soft, but this filly is bred in Ireland and she liked it. I’ve ridden her before on [soft] turf, and I knew she was going to handle it well. I knew it would be to our advantage.”