First time on dirt, A-plus.
First time in any stakes race, graded or otherwise, never mind a Grade I, A-plus.
Sweet Lulu received high marks for shipping in from California, where she had run only on synthetic dirt, and winning the seven-furlong Grade I $500,000 Test at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
Her previous three career starts had come at Hollywood Park and Del Mar in maiden, allowance and optional claiming races. They were at three different distances, none of them seven furlongs.
Still, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer believed she was ready to try something new and challenging.
“She's done everything that we've asked her to do,” he said. “I didn't know if I should ship her this soon and come back here and try this, but she was doing so well and showing speed, and this is a Grade I and a very important race for pedigree, so we decided to try it.”
When the gates opened, Sweet Lulu, Baby J and Wildcat Lily each showed alertness and a willingness to lead through hot fractions, but Wildcat Lily dropped back just off the pace to let the other two duel through the first three-quarters of a mile.
That duel ran through a quarter in 22.28 and a half in 44.95, and Baby J just couldn't maintain the pace through the stretch. Wildcat Lily was urged on by jockey John Velazquez, and came on to pick up the challenge where Baby J had left it.
Sweet Lulu, though, was determined through the final furlong and got to the wire a head before Wildcat Lily. My Happy Face, trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown and cutting back from route races, was third, another neck farther back.
“The speed is pretty good today, so we wanted to have a clear trip on the lead, or at least anywhere close, so we got a perfect trip,” winning rider Julien Leparoux said. “Johnny came to me . . . it looked like he maybe even came in front of me, and she came back to win, so it was good.”
“I was a little concerned when she got headed, but Julien rode hard, and she fought back and won,” Hollendorfer said. “Very nice.”
Thought Sweet Lulu had not yet competed on conventional dirt, she had trained on it at Pleasanton as a 2-year-old, Hollendorfer said.
“She liked it there and always showed that she could run a little,” he said. “So, we weren't that concerned about it. After the last race, I asked Julien, and he thought she would handle dirt better than synthetic.”
On the other end of that head-long margin of victory, it was a head-long margin of defeat. Velazquez had the horse to go out and set the pace, but allowed others to contest it. Wildcat Lily had set similar fractions in her last start, a second-place finish here to Lighthouse Bay in the Grade I Prioress on July 27.
In that race, though, she yielded late to the stretch charge of the victor. This time, Velazquez sat off the pace and waited for the turn, coming off it with a head lead.
“Tough beat,” Velazquez said. “She ran great. I thought I had them, but the horse on my inside [Sweet Lulu] had a little something left, and it was probably a little too far for my filly.”
My Happy Face was cutting back to seven furlongs after running a mile and 11⁄8 miles in her last two starts, winning the Lotka overnight stakes and finishing second to Princess of Sylmar in the Coaching Club American Oaks.
“She ran huge,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, there was a lot of horses stopping at the quarter-pole. Mike just felt that there were a lot of tired horses ahead of him, and they all decided to stack themselves across the track, trying to give themselves the best shot they could.
“Unfortunately, it spun us seven-, eight-, nine-wide. She ran her race; it's just one of those things when you have a big field in horse racing, sometimes you're not going to get the best trip. Mike did the best he could. I thought she ran her 'A' race, probably just lost a little too much ground turning for home.”
Hollendorfer will consider bringing Sweet Lulu to Santa Anita in November for the Breeders' Cup.
“I think we would look at something like that,” he said. “I didn't make any other long-range plans for her. This was my point race. My owner agreed to it, and here we are.”