Saratoga’s Thursday opener was already a sentimental occasion, with fans back on the scene after a spectatorless 2020 season due to the pandemic. But the sight of the late Marylou Whitney’s homebred Pretty Birdie wiring the $150,000 Schuylerville S. (G3) added another layer of emotion to the day.
Her widower, John Hendrickson, summed up his feelings after the historic Eton blue and brown silks led all the way at Whitney’s beloved Saratoga:
“This is where she felt the most alive. This is the way she is alive, and she has a win on opening day. It’s pretty special. This is a dream come true for me and Marylou. Things getting back to normal and winning on opening day, she’s throwing a party. She said ‘I want to race, get back to work.’
“It means so much. The smiling faces and having Saratoga back the way it should be and having a win. It’s very special.”
Moreover, Pretty Birdie embodies the legacy of the Whitney breeding program, as the offspring of homebreds. The gray filly is from the first crop of Bird Song, who is himself a Grade 2-winning son of Whitney’s champion filly Bird Town. Pretty Birdie’s dam, the Street Sense mare Bird Sense, descends from the same family of Bird Town and Birdstone. Thus Pretty Birdie is inbred 3×4 to their dam, Broodmare of the Year Dear Birdie.
Trained by Norm Casse, Pretty Birdie wired her June 18 debut at Churchill Downs, and employed the same tactics successfully at the Spa. Schuylerville morning-line favorite Happy Soul would have had something to say about that, but she was scratched after spiking a fever, according to Daily Racing Form’s David Grening.
In Happy Soul’s absence, Mainstay inherited the role of favorite at odds of 1.30-1. The half-sister to champion two-year-old filly Vequist had shown plenty of speed in her Parx unveiling, but a troubled start here put her in catch-up mode.
Meanwhile, Pretty Birdie, the 2.80-1 second choice, scampered from her rail post and established control with Luis Saez. After rattling off splits of :22.29 and :45.82, Pretty Birdie kept finding down the lane despite clinging to her left lead. Mainstay recovered well enough to chase in second throughout, but not enough to make up her deficit. Pretty Birdie held sway by two lengths in a final time of 1:12.32 for six furlongs.
“She’s very fast,” said Saez, whose three-win day put him on top of the jockey standings. “I could feel it. She was on her toes. She broke from there pretty quick, and we controlled the pace. When we came to the top of the stretch, she was running. I was pretty happy with her.
“She was a little tired (late), but she was go. Nice filly.”
Mainstay’s trainer, Butch Reid, was wondering what might have happened with a better start.
“I think she ran well,” Reid said. “It was a quality horse that beat her. My jockey (Frankie Pennington) was a little upset that she wasn’t standing quite right in the gate, and they snapped it before she was really ready. She had one leg that was underneath the next stall. I think maybe if she breaks a little better, who knows, but she didn’t get away from the gate clean.”
The top two were well clear of the rest. Saucy Lady T checked in another 5 1/4 lengths back in third, but 8 1/2 lengths in front of fourth-placer Velvet Sister. Cartel Queen, Eagle Express, and the ever-trailing Queen Camilla rounded out the order of finish. Pipeline Girl was withdrawn along with the aforementioned Happy Soul.
Now 2-for-2, Kentucky-bred Pretty Birdie increased her bankroll to $139,988.
“I feel like she was a little more green today,” Casse said. “She didn’t want to switch leads down the lane. I was a little bit concerned about that as she was finishing, but I think that was just her seeing a new place. This was the first time she had even come over here. I kept her on the Oklahoma (training track) side the entire week she’s been here.
“I think she was just gawking around and maybe even waiting on the other horse. Those are things we’ll fix before we run her in the Spinaway (G1) next.”
The seven-furlong Spinaway on Sept. 5 could also be on the radar for Thursday’s sensational maiden winner, Echo Zulu. By leading freshman sire Gun Runner, and a half-sister to last summer’s H. Allen Jerkens S. (G1) hero Echo Town, the Steve Asmussen debutante forced the pace and opened up by 5 1/2 lengths. Echo Zulu clocked 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:04.69, considerably faster than the 1:05.60 posted by frontrunning Microbiome in the companion maiden a couple of races earlier.