Virginia Joy stole a ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) by toppling 1-5 favorite War Like Goddess in Saturday’s $600,000 Flower Bowl (G2), and Annapolis could be on a path to the Mile (G1) after his odds-on conquest of the $186,000 Saranac (G3). Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. engineered both front-running wins at Saratoga, with the coup aboard Virginia Joy especially skillful.
Flower Bowl (G2)
Defending Flower Bowl champ War Like Goddess has routinely overcome slow paces, including her repeat scores in the Bewitch (G3) and Glens Falls (G2) this campaign. Thus the lack of early tempo on Saturday didn’t appear to be an insuperable obstacle. Nor would it have been – if the heavy favorite had been given a better ride by Joel Rosario.
Overconfidently anchored at or near the rear, Rosario opted to probe for room between foes in the stretch, rather than go outside with the superior animal. As a result, War Like Goddess couldn’t deploy her lethal kick until far too late. The Bill Mott mare flew her final quarter in a field-best :21.72, according to Trakus, but she simply had too much to do. The wire came in time for Virginia Joy, who held on by a diminishing neck in this “Win and You’re In.”
Yet Virginia Joy deserves credit for making the most of her gift trip, and having the finishing speed to hang on. The seventh Flower Bowl winner trained by Chad Brown, the Peter Brant colorbearer went straight to the lead from the start and waltzed in :26.47, :53.29, 1:19.59, and 1:45.29 on the firm inner turf. That left her with plenty in reserve for the final three-eighths, and Virginia Joy accelerated to finish 1 3/8 miles in 2:19.51. The 4.90-1 second choice paid $11.80.
The German-bred mare was turning the tables on War Like Goddess, having placed third in the Aug. 6 Glens Falls at 1 1/2 miles last out. The slight cutback helped Virginia Joy, whose previous stakes scores had come at this trip – the 2020 Mehl-Mulhens-Trophy (G3) at Hamburg as well as the Mar. 5 The Very One (G3) and the May 7 Sheepshead Bay (G2) in a 14-length rout on yielding going. Her lone loss at about 1 3/8 miles was a close third in the Preis der Diana (German Oaks) (G1).
Virginia Joy’s nearest stalker in the Flower Bowl, Coastana, held third by a head from deep-closing Temple City Terror. Next came Flanigan’s Cove and Marvelous Maude. Capital Structure was withdrawn.
“It was a comfortable lead,” Ortiz said of his passage aboard Virginia Joy, “and that was the plan to make the lead and make it as slow as I can. It worked out good. She gave me a great kick from the quarter pole to the eighth pole. I worked on her and she stayed on, and that was the only reason she held on.”
“That was our plan,” Brown said of putting Virginia Joy on the lead. “There wasn’t any speed in the race. She had already won a nice race earlier in the season going wire-to-wire (the Sheepshead Bay), so I told Irad, ‘why don’t you put her on the lead. Unless somebody goes crazy, just put her out there and just see how far she’ll go.’ She’s been effective before doing it, so it worked out.
“I knew she had a chance. I know there was a real bear (War Like Goddess) behind her getting ready to come at her. Fortunately for us she had some traffic trouble, the favorite, and she started her run a little later than I’m sure she wished she could have, and we were able to just beat her to the wire.”
Mott cited the pace while also noting Rosario’s decisionmaking.
“You would even hope for a :51 (half-mile split) or something like that, but :53 and 1:19 for the three-quarters is just impossible to overcome,” the Hall of Famer said.
“When they went into the first turn (in the three-turn race), I thought the horses were going well enough and then of course, as they came by the stands for the first time they were slowing it down, slowing it down, slowing it down. By that time, he was getting a ground saving trip. He was stuck down on the rail.”
“I’m not sure if he (Rosario) had an opportunity to maybe let her pick up horses, and I think there was maybe one point where he did, but he opted not to do it. She came flying. She’s a good horse. I don’t know how fast she came home, but she was rolling. Pace makes the race and in this case, it wasn’t meant for us.”
Rosario was complimentary of the victorious Virginia Joy.
“Last time I rode her (War Like Goddess) it was a slow pace, but she kicked on. That filly ran a big race today, the winner,” Rosario said. “She was comfortable on the inside and relaxed. You can’t win all the time. She always (hesitates at the gate). She ran her race, just that horse ran a big race.”
Bred by Gestut Auenquelle, Virginia Joy has compiled a record of 14-6-2-2, $845,583. As a daughter of Soldier Hollow and the Doyen mare Virginia Sun, Germany’s highweight older staying mare, Virginia Joy is a full sister to multiple Group 2-placed Virginia Storm.
The five-year-old bay would have to shorten up to 1 3/16 miles for the Filly & Mare Turf, an uncertain proposition.
“You know, I’m not sure,” Brown said of her Breeders’ Cup spot. “She certainly showed a lot today. She had it her way though, to be realistic about it. We’ll see. The races get harder as you start to put the Grade 1s next to them. She’s a quality horse and probably deserves consideration after today.”
In the absence of a pacesetter in a four-horse field, 0.15-1 favorite Annapolis wasted no time in taking command and flaunting his class in the Saranac. The Todd Pletcher sophomore quickened 5 1/2 lengths clear, setting himself up for a tilt versus elders in the Oct. 8 Coolmore Mile (G1) at Keeneland and potentially the Breeders’ Cup.
Annapolis broke so fast that he bobbled for an instant, but righted the ship by the next stride. Ortiz steered the War Front colt through slow fractions of :25.00, :49.79, and 1:13.65, then signaled to pick up speed. Annapolis left them toiling as he steamed out of the far turn and opened up, in hand, to complete 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.57. Trakus caught his final quarter in :23.00.
“You don’t take anything for granted,” Pletcher said. “We were just hoping for a clean trip, and it looked like a race on paper that had no true pacesetter, so we just kind of inherited the lead. It looked like he was traveling comfortably throughout.
“Today, we had no choice,” he added regarding front-running tactics. “I think he’s probably better with a target, but I think he’s good enough and versatile enough to do what you need to do.”
Celestial City and Fuerteventura, who stalked throughout, ended up inseparable at the wire in a dead-heat second. A further 12 lengths back in last came Ethereal Road, reiterating that he’s not interested in turf. Piqua, the one who might have taken up the pacesetting job, was scratched.
Bass Racing’s homebred Annapolis has bankrolled $592,600 from his 6-4-2-0 line. A stunning debut winner over this course and distance last summer, he fought to prevail in the Pilgrim (G2) to stamp himself as a leading Juvenile Turf (G1) contender. Unfortunately, he ended up missing the Breeders’ Cup due to a chipped ankle.
Annapolis returned in the June 3 Penn Mile (G2), only to find an unsuitably soft course and slog home second. Rebounding with a vengeance in the July 4 Manila S. over firm ground at Belmont Park, he stretched out in the 1 3/16-mile Saratoga Derby (G1) and placed second to Godolphin shipper Nations Pride. The distance, on a course that had more give than the official “firm,” was a factor, and Annapolis was back in his element in the Saranac.
“There wasn’t too much speed in the race, so he controlled the race,” Ortiz summed up. “He was nice and relaxed out there the whole time and was there when I asked him to go. He was the best horse in the race.
“That’s a workout for him. He’s pretty nice. He just got beat by some nice horses last time and came back today in great form and was there for me the whole time.”
Annapolis was produced by the high-class My Miss Sophia, who scored her signature win in the 2014 Gazelle (G2) and finished runner-up in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) for Pletcher. The daughter of Unbridled’s Song was later switched to Mott and spent the second half of her career on turf, notably placing in the 2015 First Lady (G1) and Ballston Spa (G2).
Pletcher is looking forward to testing Annapolis at the top level over a mile.
“He’s shown up and run well in each start of his life,” the horseman said. “We just felt like he was a colt that carries plenty of condition. We had thought about training up to the Coolmore Turf Mile at Keeneland, but decided he was doing great and probably a race in between would suit him.
“We (think highly of him) and feel like a mile might suit him perfectly, and so we’ll see where we fit, but he’s a big, strong colt physically. He seems like the type that would handle that step up in age.”