Close Hatches may have inherited the lead in the race, but she went ahead and grabbed the lead in her division with authority on Friday.
The 4-year-old Juddmonte Farms filly found herself in the front on the first turn, took the field through some stiff fractions and had plenty left to roll home to a five-length victory in the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga Race Course.
The win solidified her standing as the best older filly or mare in the country.
“She’s already a Grade I winner, and she just carried on that tradition today,” trainer Bill Mott said.
Upon leaving the winner’s circle after interviews, Mott was greeted by Ed Stanco, owner of the vanquished Princess of Sylmar, who finished fifth.
The Schenectady native, who enjoyed an incredible ride with Princess of Sylmar nearly to a 3-year-old filly Eclipse Award last year, congratulated Mott and the connections of Close Hatches, who has run against Princess of Sylmar five times.
The 1967 Linton High School graduate said later that he and trainer Todd Pletcher would evaluate whether that was the Princess’ last race or not.
“I spoke to Bill in the paddock before the race about what a great challenge it’s been all along, back to the Gazelle and Kentucky Oaks,” Stanco said. “So I wanted to congratulate him, because he’s a class trainer, a class guy and has done a marvelous job with his filly. She’s always been out in front of us right from the days of the Gazelle a year and a half ago.”
Close Hatches and jockey Joel Rosario didn’t have the lead heading into the first turn of the nine-furlong Personal Ensign, but she had it handed to her midway through the turn when Shuvee winner Antipathy, ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., dropped back.
She continued to maintain a comfortable margin on the muddy, sealed main track around the grandstand turn, and nobody made any kind of threatening move through the stretch.
With the win well in hand, Rosario eased up on Close Hatches at the sixteenth pole as she won her third straight Grade I. Long shot Fiftyshadesofhay won the race for second place.
“I did not expect it to be wire-to-wire,” Rosario said. “It looked like Irad took a little hold [of Antipathy], and I just took my position. Turning for home, I expected Princess of Sylmar to show up, but she didn’t.”
Javier Castellano rode Princess of Sylmar, who added blinkers for the Personal Ensign, for the eighth straight time and 10th overall. He said he had no answers as to why she faltered.
“She had a beautiful spot today, and on the backside she was really running, but when she got to the quarter pole, she was done,” Castellano said. “I didn’t have horse at all.”
“She’s run OK on an off track before,” Pletcher said. “It wasn’t like he was having to ask her to try to keep up with Close Hatches. So, I don’t know. Back to the drawing board.”
“When Close Hatches went 46 [seconds for the half-mile], she didn’t melt down, she just kept right on going,” Stanco said.
As much as Stanco would love to keep racing Princess of Sylmar, he raised the possibility that perhaps they would have to decide if it was time to send her to the breeding shed.
“We’ll see. Who knows. I’m not worried,” he said. “I look at it this way: she had a historic 3-year-old season.
“I said after the Kentucky Oaks, if she never ran again, I’d be OK. So, she had a great year . . . it’s tough,” he said, choking up momentarily, then chuckling. “You hope it goes on, but we’ll see.”