A change in tactics, facilitated by a step up in trip, made all the difference for Antoinette in Sunday’s $500,000 Saratoga Oaks Invitational. Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez took the initiative early in the 1 3/16-mile turf test, and the Godolphin homebred clung to the lead despite a bold challenge from Stunning Sky.
Antoinette had been stuck on third-place finishes all season, on both dirt and turf. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott had to decide whether to keep her on the main track for Saturday’s Alabama Stakes (G1) or revert to turf here. He had a similar choice to make with Harvey’s Lil Goil, who ended up trying the Alabama and checking in third to Swiss Skydiver. Antoinette got the Saratoga Oaks assignment that proved more amenable on Sunday.
The pace scenario here was definitely more to her advantage, with Antoinette looming as the likely controlling speed. The other plausible pace factor was 3-2 favorite Enola Gay, but she was stretching out from a rallying victory at a mile. Antoinette had been looking more like a one-paced grinder, and going forward figured to be the gambit, especially at this trip.
While Enola Gay did show in front in the initial strides, she was restrained, and Antoinette was happy to oblige as the pacesetter through splits of :23.94, :48.87, and 1:12.78 on the firm Mellon turf. Enola Gay tried to challenge on the far turn, but Antoinette rebuffed her and kicked away into the stretch.
Stunning Sky, who had been tracking the top pair, now took off after Antoinette and drew alongside at the eighth pole. Coming out a bit to engage Stunning Sky in hand-to-hand combat, Antoinette knuckled down, held her off, and edged a half-length clear in 1:53.30. The 5-1 chance returned $12.
Key Biscayne reported home another 2 1/2 lengths back in third, followed by Speaktomeofsummer; Enola Gay; Mott’s new recruit Ricetta, a non-threatening sixth in her U.S. debut; and the tailed-off Queens Embrace.
Velazquez recapped with forensic detail.
“There wasn’t much speed in the race,” her rider said. “I’d been taking this filly back every time she runs. She runs behind the horses on dirt or grass and I think she’s going to gallop and when you let her go, she doesn’t pass the horses. Today, we sent her to the lead and got her to relax and she put up a good fight. I didn’t have to take a hold of her today. She opened up on the horses, but she fought with the horses. I wasn’t worried about the distance at all; I was worried about her putting her mind on running.”
Mott was on the same page.
“I think we both looked at the same racing form and it looked like we would be laying first or second,” Mott said. “He decided he was going to let her lay up close. Last time, he had been tucked in behind horses and tipped her out and she didn’t really respond for him. With the lack of speed in this race, we thought just let her do what she’s comfortable doing.
“She ran pretty well today and that was a nice purse. Maybe there’s another one of those somewhere for us. The way she ran today, I’d say maybe we run on turf but the good thing about her is she can do either.”
Antoinette started out on turf, breaking her maiden second time out at Belmont last fall. Her stakes debut was intended to come on the grass in the Tepin S., but when it was transferred to Aqueduct’s main track, the Hard Spun filly handled the switch beautifully. That expanded her options, and she stayed on the dirt for the beginning of her sophomore campaign. After thirds in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and Gardenia, Antoinette returned to turf, only to wind up third again in the Wonder Again (G3) at Belmont. In her latest, she was third in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) at the Spa, and the Saratoga Oaks upped her line to 8-3-0-4, $483,750.
Her dam, the Group 2-winning Elusive Quality mare Shuruq, was a Dubai Carnival star on Tapeta but also capable on turf. Herself a homebred, the Saeed bin Suroor trainee captured the 2013 UAE Oaks and beat males in both the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) and Burj Nahaar (G3) in 2014. Shuruq earned her turf laurel in the Istanbul Trophy (G3) that fall at Veliefendi.
Antoinette is her family’s second major winner in a week. Shuruq’s half-brother, Space Blues, just extended his streak to four with a new career top in the Aug. 9 Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1).