December 1, 2023

Benner Island hangs on from surging Strike in Eight Belles

Benner Island (inside) with Javier Castellano up wins the Eight Belles by a head over Union Strike at Churchill Downs (Jamie Newell/

Shortleaf Stable’s Benner Island just lasted from the flying Union Strike in Friday’s $200,000 Eight Belles (G2) on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. Although that continued the trend of early speed holding on the sloppy track, she was the lone pace factor in the top three.

Yet to be on the lead at the first call in her seven prior races, the 3-1 favorite benefited from an enterprising ride by Javier Castellano. The incoming Hall of Famer had her on the engine throughout from her rail post, forcing the issue through an opening quarter in :22.54 before gaining command at the half in :45.78. Benner Island then stuck to her task gamely for the duration.

California shipper Union Strike, well back in ninth early, lost precious time as she had to angle off the inside and split rivals. Picking up quickly to offer a spirited rally, she was finishing best of all. Her momentum propelled her past Benner Island, but that was a jump past the wire. As the photo revealed, Union Strike missed by a diminishing head. Jockey Brice Blanc claimed foul against Castellano on the winner, alleging interference as he was trying to come up the fence, but the stewards disallowed it.

Thus Castellano and trainer Brad Cox scored back-to-back stakes wins, following Green Mask in the TwinSpires Turf Sprint (G3).

Benner Island negotiated seven furlongs on the sealed main track in 1:24.28 to record her first stakes victory. She had finished second in last summer’s Arlington-Washington Lassie as well as the March 11 Honeybee (G3). After a fifth as the 6-5 choice in the Fantasy (G3), however, the daughter of Speightstown and Grade 2 victress Spacy Tracy was off the Oaks trail. Shortening up to one turn clearly suited Benner Island, who’d won her only prior start at Churchill, going a one-turn mile in November. Her scorecard now stands at 8-3-2-0, $235,863.

Bred by Mercedes Stables in Kentucky, Benner Island brought $200,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September. She hails from the family of champion Eliza, whose descendants include 2008 Florida Derby (G1) hero Dialed In. Eighth as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Dialed In has first-crop representative Gunnevera going to bat for him Saturday. Eliza, runner-up in the 1993 Kentucky Oaks (G1), is also ancestress of 2008 Oaks near-misser Broadway’s Alibi.

Quotes from Churchill Downs

Winning rider Javier Castellano: “The track is a little speed-favoring and I used my horse a little bit early to put her in a good position, especially considering the race was seven-eighths (of a mile). She fought very hard down the stretch and I know once I was past the wire that I was confident she stayed in her path.”

Trainer Brad Cox: “She was taking Javier up the backside and when I saw the :22 and change (for the first quarter-mile) I didn’t mind that, but when I saw :45 and change (for the half-mile) I didn’t like that. But, honestly, turning for home I thought she would back up on the fractions. Knowing the filly, I knew she would fight and was fit. She’s running back on three weeks and had two solid works since. It was a big effort and a great job.

“The Acorn ([G1] June 10 at Belmont Park) would be ideal for her next, but we’ll let her tell us. Hopefully Javier can stay on her. She hasn’t had a tough campaign, but she’s been running steady for three months, so we’ll see how she comes out. I think one turn is what she is best at and I think she proved that when she flattened in the [Honeybee] after ranging up.”

On winning two stakes on Oaks day:

“This is awesome. Growing up two blocks outside the back gate, this is my home. I don’t know if it’s hit me yet. Green Mask showed up today and finally got it done and then this filly. We expected her to run big today.”

Brice Blanc, who ride the troubled runner-up Union Strike: “I don’t understand why they didn’t take her (Benner Island) down. She broke my momentum twice. We were inside the three-sixteenths pole and I got up in the hole – I was in there. And she shut me off. I broke a little slow, but my filly put me right in the race. First time in the mud for her and she ran terrific. A good race for her for sure.”