Trainer Ian Wilkes got a new look at one of his charges Friday, and she looked pretty good on her way to the wire.
Used to getting out well and sitting just off the pace, 5-year-old Free as a Bird broke slowly and was seventh early in the Caress, a $100,000 stakes at 5 1⁄2 furlongs on the turf for fillies and mares 4 and up. She and jockey Joel Rosario swung wide around the turn and into the stretch, then closed for the win by three-quarters of a length.
“You learn something every time you run,” Wilkes said. “At least she’s not one-dimensional and has to be close; she can close from out of it, or she can lay close. It just depends on the pace.
“I probably thought she’d be a little closer in the race, from the inside, but she broke a step slow. They’re going a lot faster, but I think she’s very comfortable with horses in front of her.”
Believe in Charlie and Heaven Knows What took the field through a hot first quarter-mile in :21.37 and a half in :43.98. Jewel of a Cat and Munnings Sister were a few lengths back, and Jewel of a Cat had some late kick on the inside.
As the pacesetters slowed, Free as a Bird’s outside closing move brought her to the front, and she paid $5.40, $3.20 and $2.40. Jewel of a Cat finished a neck ahead of Madame Giry to pay $5.50 and $3.90, while Madame Giry returned $3.00.
Making her turf debut, Munnings Sister was last of the nine runners.
Free as a Bird is now 4-2-0 from six starts this year. In the last two years, she’s 5-4-2 from 12 starts.
“The filly’s doing extremely well, and this year, she’s stepped her game up,” Wilkes said. “She’s matured. She’s a 5-year-old and getting a little better.”
Wilkes said he will aim her next at the Smart N Fancy on Aug. 25, another $100,000 51⁄2 -furlong turf run, this one for fillies and mares 3 and up.
Full sister to Rachel Alexandra, 3-year-old filly Samantha Nicole was fourth in the third race, a maiden race for fillies and mares 3 and up across 1 1⁄8 miles of main track.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, this was just her second start. She was second in her debut at Fair Grounds in February.
The Stonestreet Stables-owned filly went right to the front Friday and led through quarter-miles of 24.66, 24.84 and 24.40 before seeing a strong challenge from a trio of horses in the stretch. She kept pace with the late chargers for a few jumps before being overwhelmed.