February 7, 2023

Zhukova zooms into elite club in Man o’ War

High-class Irish mare Zhukova trounced males in the Man o' War in her last trip to Belmont (NYRA/Coglianese Photography)

Irish invader Zhukova was bet down to 4-5 favoritism in Saturday’s $392,000 Man o’ War (G1) at Belmont Park, and the Dermot Weld mare more than lived up to the forecast when outclassing them by six lengths.

Zhukova thus became the fifth distaffer to defeat males in the turf feature (as first noted on Twitter by my colleague Vance Hanson). While Dotted Line (1959) won the inaugural Man o’ War, contested in split divisions at Aqueduct, the three heroines at Belmont Park were all champions – Typecast (1972), the great Dahlia (1974), and Waya (1978).

While Zhukova’s favoritism was mainly based on her top European formlines, that overshadowed those of her American-based rivals, the rain was a welcome boost. On firm turf, there would have been a scruple about whether she could be outkicked by a sharper turn of foot. But the yielding ground assured she’d have her optimal conditions to flaunt her class – and she did, in spades.

Originally scheduled for the Widener course, the Man o’ War was switched to the inner turf on account of the going. Three of the eight entrants were scratched: Twilight Eclipse, the 2015 winner, who would have been making his first start for Graham Motion; Patterson Cross; and Highland Sky.

Zhukova enjoyed a perfect trip, courtesy of Hall of Famer John Velazquez. She was perched on the flank of pacesetter Charming Kitten, ironically her former stablemate who had spent time in Weld’s yard last year. After Charming Kitten slogged through pedestrian splits of :27.47, :56.45, 1:24.16, and 1:49.69, Zhukova dismissed him turning for home and opened up. She completed 1 3/8 miles in 2:25.31, a reflection of the pace, but she quickened late in a display of utter authority.

According to the official chart, Zhukova accomplished her last three-eighths in :35 and change. Trakus, which posted a final time of 2:23.05, recorded that sectional in :34.95. Despite the timing discrepancies, it’s clear that she was motoring in the lane.

Taghleeb, the longest shot on the board at 10-1, prevailed in the photo over Sadler’s Joy for second. Charming Kitten tired to fourth. Defending champion Wake Forest never factored as last of the quintet.

Bred by Weld’s late mother, Marguerite, Zhukova is campaigned by John D. Murrell (husband of Chantal Regalado-Gonzalez, in whose name she runs in Europe). By Fastnet Rock and out of Marguerite Weld’s homebred Galileo mare Nightime, winner of the 2006 Irish 1000 Guineas (G1), Zhukova has long been well regarded. The bay, unraced at two, stamped herself as one to follow when capping her brief three-year-old campaign with a victory in the Oyster S. at Galway.

Zhukova picked up right where she left off by dominating the Alleged in her 2016 premiere at the Curragh, readily beating the useful colt Success Days. The third-placer was fellow comebacker Found, then the reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) star who would progress further to take the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) later in the year.

The streaking Zhukova then romped in the Blue Wind (G3) at Naas and returned from her summer holiday to beat another Aidan O’Brien notable, US Army Ranger, in the Enterprise (G3) on Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown. That was significant as marking her first score on a “good” surface, suggesting she was no longer beholden to rain-softened ground. Zhukova didn’t reinforce that idea next time in the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1) at Ascot, retreating to seventh in first-time cheekpieces.

Zhukova ditched that equipment in her reappearance in the April 15 Noblesse at Cork, where she made short work of her opponents as the 1-3 favorite. With this first Grade 1 coup on her resume, in her first transatlantic venture, the five-year-old improved her resume to 10-7-0-0, $479,453.

Quotes from Belmont Park

Winning rider John Velazquez on Zhukova: “She gives you so much confidence. She broke well and there really wasn’t much speed in the race on paper. They told me she likes to be close to the pace and with no pace at all, I knew she was going to break great and be right there. She handled the grass really well and coming from Europe you could tell she was used to this type of surface. When I asked her to run down the lane she had another gear.”

Mark Weld, trainer Dermot Weld’s son and assistant: “We’re absolutely over the moon with that. It was a major target over the last few weeks. The rain came, which was a huge help. Johnny was very complimentary about her. He said she could have a future here. She’ll come home now but the (Breeders’ Cup) Fillies & Mares Turf (G1) would be a definite possibility to finish off the year.

“I was concerned with the fractions; my big fear is that it would happen and that she would get caught. But her class won out. She’s a true European Grade 1 mare. We’ve known she’s a good mare for a little while.

“You don’t beat the Breeders’ Cup winner Found very easily, and she beat her pretty handily (in the 2016 Alleged S. at the Curragh). She’s a homebred; we’ve had her since she was a foal bred by my grandmother. This is huge for us today. We have a lot to look forward to.”

Hawksmoor wired the soggy Beaugay from favored Dacita (NYRA/Coglianese Photography/Chelsea Durand)

If yielding ground assisted the class horse in the Man o’ War, conditions had more of a leveling effect in the $150,000 Beaugay (G3). Lael Stables’ Hawksmoor led throughout under a well-judged ride by Julien Leparoux, 2-1 favorite Dacita nearly overcame the drag on her acceleration in rallying from last, and Miss Temple City and On Leave were both withdrawn.

Hawksmoor certainly had good form in the book. For former trainer Hugo Palmer, the Azamour filly had won last year’s German 1000 Guineas (G2) and 2015 Prestige (G3) while placing in such events as the Fillies’ Mile (G1), Prix Saint-Alary (G1), Rockfel (G2), and Kilboy Estate (G2). In her U.S. debut, she almost plundered the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland, only to be denied in the final strides by Time and Motion and Harmonize.

Switched to Arnaud Delacour to remain stateside, Hawksmoor didn’t run up to her best in the Mrs. Revere (G2) at the end of her campaign. But she was fresh and ready in this 2017 bow, setting fractions of :25.45, :51.20, and 1:16.95 before repelling a bid from Time and Motion and hanging on from Dacita by a head.

Dacita, whose prerequisite for a firm course is no secret, deserves extra credit for a bold thrust. The 123-pound co-highweight with Time and Motion, Dacita was giving Hawksmoor four pounds. She appeared poised to go right by in the stretch, but her closing kick was blunted just enough to cost her.

Hawksmoor clocked 1 1/16 miles in 1:48.91 on the yielding Widener turf, a change from the Beaugay’s initially scheduled inner turf. She’s now earned $419,077 from her 12-4-0-5 line.

Quotes from Belmont Park

Jockey Julien Leparoux on the victorious Hawksmoor: “Early in the race she was very relaxed and very comfortable on the lead. I tried to get her going pretty early. She fought back when she felt Dacita coming on the outside. She was very comfortable on it (the yielding ground). I was confident about that. But it was a good bunch of fillies behind her. I was expecting the closer (Dacita) to come and she fought them back.”

Winning trainer Arnaud Delacour: “I was kind of hoping we could have soft turf and obviously the weather was with us. I told Julien I didn’t think there was that much speed. She’s obviously has run very well on the soft before in that kind of way (forwardly placed), so we were trying to do the same thing today.

“Towards the finish, Dacita came on like she was going to pass us but our filly is a little deceiving. She was kind of looking around a little bit, that’s why she had blinkers, but she kept coming and she tried hard. I was real pleased with that. I was very happy she put on a good performance off the layoff. She’s had been breezing very well.

On options including the $500,000 New York (G2) on June 9: “I’ll have to see how she comes back. For sure we’ll and see what makes sense. She’s a pretty versatile filly in regards to distance. In Europe she’s run well from seven (furlongs) to a mile and an eighth or even longer. So, we’ve got options.”