April 20, 2024

Roca Rojo denies Believe in Bertie in Churchill Distaff Turf Mile

Roca Rojo with Florent Geroux up wins the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs

Sheep Pond Partners, Newport Stables and Bradley Thoroughbreds’ Roca Rojo had a war on her hands with plucky pacesetter Believe in Bertie, but the 6-5 favorite won Saturday’s $300,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) on the head-bob.

Trained by Chad Brown, who’d just sent out Paulassilverlining to take the Humana Distaff (g1), Roca Rojo inherited favoritism after the scratch of Miss Temple City.

Trainer Graham Motion commented on the withdrawal via Twitter, stating “with more rain this morning I am not comfortable running on turf this soft off a layoff.” He added that Miss Temple City may be rerouted to next Saturday’s Beaugay (G3) at Belmont, her improvised prep for Royal Ascot.

Roja Rojo was logically next in line for the bettors’ confidence, since she’d missed by a whisker to Miss Temple City when last seen in the December 4 Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar. The Irish-bred is also a proven soft-ground performer, both in her Killarney debut romp and in last fall’s Athenia (G3) at Belmont.

While Churchill’s Matt Winn turf course was officially labeled good, the riders opted to take the outer paths and avoid the hedge as though the condition were actually softer.

As expected, Believe in Bertie was the controlling speed, but Roca Rojo’s rider, Florent Geroux, once again displayed his tactical finesse by putting Roca Rojo right in her flank. Thus the front runner never had a real cushion through fractions of :25.23 and :49.20. Roca Rojo drew alongside through six furlongs in 1:12.91 and began to assert at the head of the lane. Just when the favorite was about to edge away, however, Believe in Bertie came again, and the two grappled to the line.

By completing the mile in 1:37.53, Roca Rojo improved her record to 8-6-1-0, $490,672.

Believe in Bertie lost this skirmish, but the Louisiana-bred likely gained more believers. It’s an intriguing counterfactual to consider what might have happened on a firm course, where she could have used her best weapon to arguably greater effect.

Linda stayed on to edge Mississippi Delta for third, another 3 1/4 lengths astern. Prize Exhibit, Hillhouse High, and Harmonize rounded out the order under the wire.

Roca Rojo, bred in the Emerald Isle by Tommy Murphy, is by Strategic Prince and out of the Orpen mare Lucy Diamonds. That gives her 4 x 4 inbreeding to Danzig. She’s also a half-sister to Roca Tumu, who was Hong Kong-bound after his victory in the 2013 Britannia, a Royal Ascot heritage handicap for three-year-olds down the straight mile. Renamed Beauty Flame, he developed into a Group 2 winner and multiple Group 1 placegetter at Sha Tin.

Quotes from Churchill Downs

Winning rider Florent Geroux: “I was right off the leader (Believe in Bertie). My filly was closer than she usually is. She likes to sit back and make one run, but there was a lack of pace in the race. I decided to put her closer and make sure I wasn’t going to be trapped behind. Down the stretch, I thought I had it pretty easily, but the other filly tried to come back at her. My filly was the best.”

Winning trainer Chad Brown: “She’s been training really well. We knew she could handle the soft going. She’s equally as good on firm. We were a little concerned about the pace and it played out that way. It was a soft pace with a very good horse setting the fractions, a really solid horse. She had her work cut out for her to run her down. We’ll look at the Just a Game (G1) – that makes a lot of sense, in five weeks at a mile at Belmont.”

Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan on near-miss second Believe in Bertie: “She was comfortable in the going. She ran hard. It was a tough beat. She came back in the final yards and the other filly just got the better of us.”

Brian Hernandez Jr., who rode third-place finisher Linda: “We had a good trip. Unfortunately, we did draw the one hole, but we were able to work out a trip. Our filly is coming around.”

Trainer Ian Wilkes on Linda: “The slow first quarter compromised our filly. She was just kind of sitting there with nowhere to go.”