Five days after last year’s Breeders’ Cup, far removed from the trail of champions, on a Thursday afternoon at Penn National, a lightbulb went on.
Trainer Todd Pletcher knew he had a nice filly, a Pennsylvania-bred named Princess of Sylmar, who trained like a fast, professional horse, but . . .
She won by 19 lengths that day.
It wasn’t Bunyan-esque, by any means, coming as it did against a field of maidens who were strung out by over 62 lengths when she hit the wire.
But as winter descended, Pletcher saw greater potential than he had before.
Then she won by 5 1⁄4, then won a stakes by 7 1⁄2, and before anyone knew it, Princess of Sylmar had won four straight by almost 39 lengths.
Now, she’s the 3-5 morning-line favorite for the biggest race for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga Race Course, today’s Alabama at a mile and a quarter.
The only horse in racing for Schenectady native Ed Stanco, Princess of Sylmar, a daughter of Majestic Warrior out of the Catienus mare Storm Dixie, will face five in the Alabama, and is poised to just about lock up an Eclipse Award.
“We thought the filly trained really well before we ever got her started,” Pletcher said. “In her second start, even though it was at Penn National against Pennsylvania-breds, it’s rare that you see a horse win by that many lengths. So certainly, she was on our radar screen as a potential stakes filly, but once we got into the stakes races at Aqueduct, she got more and more impressive with each start.”
Pletcher sends most of his best horses to Florida for the winter to race at Gulfstream Park, but Princess of Sylmar was thriving in New York, so instead of disrupting a comfortable routine, he kept her at Aqueduct, where she won the Busanda in January and the Busher in February.
He picked the 19-length win as the day the light went on for Princess of Sylmar, but Stanco prefers the allowance optional claiming race she won wit h Rajiv Maragh at Aqueduct in December.
Tracking pacesetter Kimono, Princess of Sylmar patiently waited until Maragh angled her off the rail at the quarter pole, and powered by to win by 51⁄4 lengths.
“He pulled her out and just touched her on the right side and she exploded,” said Stanco, a 1967 Linton High School graduate. “And there weren’t many people at Aqueduct that day. And she just exploded. I thought, ‘My God, she is good.’
“And then I spoke to Todd right after that race, when we got the numbers on her. And we said, ‘You know what, her sheet numbers were just a notch or two behind the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies horses.’ He said, ‘She’ll go forward, that was her first real race. If she improves off that, she’s competitive with that level.’ So that was really the first indication and set the stage for everything.”
“Everything,” as it were, turned into a terrific 3-year-old season in which Princess of Sylmar has emerged as the leader of the division and a fan favorite.
She was second to Close Hatches in the Gazelle, but beat Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Beholder as a 38-1 long shot in the Kentucky Oaks and followed it up with an authoritative win in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga four weeks ago.
“After her second stakes win [at Aqueduct], we had a choice to make, between staying in New York or go to Florida for a little while,” Pletcher said. “We just felt like we didn’t want to change what was working. She seemed to be really happy in that environment and climate, and she was doing really well. We had a gameplan in mind that we would go to the Gazelle, possibly the Kentucky Oaks, and stuck to it.”
The only firm plan now is to run in the Alabama.
Princess of Sylmar is not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup and will be due for a break soon, anyway, since Stanco plans to run her next year.
An Eclipse Award looms.
“I’m not really thinking about that. That’s a lie. I am,” the 63-year-old Stanco said with a laugh. “But, no, it’s one race at a time, and the Alabama would be a great, great race to win. It’s done on the track.
“We went into the Kentucky Oaks knowing she was good, but we didn’t know how good.”
The most formidable opposition to Princess of Sylmar in the Alabama is California shipper Fiftyshadesofhay, a three-time graded-stakes winner who took the Black-Eyed Susan by a neck over Marathon Lady.
Two of the six in the field — the lightly raced Galloping Giraffe and Carnival Court — are tackling a Grade I despite never having run in a stakes race.
Pletcher trains Galloping Giraffe for Repole Stable.
“She had a nice race going a mile and an eighth, so she’s healthy and it’s a big purse and it’s a Grade I,” Pletcher said. “There’s no reason not to, but at the same time, I’d be surprised if she’s able to beat Princess of Sylmar. And I told Mike [Repole] going in that that’s the case. But it’s horse racing, and you never know.”
Stanco, equal parts confidence and anxiousness, echoed that observation.
“They’re only 3 years old, there’s always a new shooter and they’re still growing,” he said. “That’s how it works.”