As Shadwell’s star filly Malathaat awaits Saratoga, her Todd Pletcher stablemate Zaajel proved more than a mere deputy in Saturday’s $242,500 Mother Goose S. (G2) at Belmont Park. The 18.40-1 longshot attended 4-5 favorite Always Carina throughout before outstaying her in the 1 1/16-mile test.
Hitherto unbeaten Always Carina was making her stakes debut off a pair of romps by a combined margin of 13 3/4 lengths. Now she was facing rivals with experience in major divisional races. Clairiere, the 9-5 second choice, was most recently fourth to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), and the 5.50-1 Make Mischief was third to Search Results in the Acorn S. (G1).
Zaajel was initially on the Oaks trail herself. The Shadwell homebred had won her first two career starts, but lost the plot since capturing the Jan. 30 Forward Gal S. (G3) at Gulfstream Park. Rank under restraint when fading to sixth in the March 20 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), Zaajel didn’t enjoy a turf experiment in the April 30 Edgewood S. (G2) and trudged home last. Thus she was ignored in the market, despite the fact that she was reverting to the one-turn configuration that had suited her well.
Under new rider Joel Rosario, Zaajel was in her comfort zone stalking Always Carina through tepid fractions of :24.03, :48.03, and 1:12.44. Not in as good a position was Clairiere, who knuckled coming out of the gate and trailed the quintet early.
Entering the stretch, Zaajel lifted her game and challenged Always Carina. The favorite tried to dig in, but Zaajel was relentless as she dueled her into submission. Edging away by 1 1/4 lengths, the daughter of Street Sense clocked 1:42.83.
Clairiere stayed on down the outside and just missed second, with Always Carina salvaging the runner-up spot by a nose. Make Mischief took the rail route to finish fourth, and Illiogami wound up a well-beaten last of the five.
Zaajel was giving Pletcher a 54th birthday present, his sixth win in the Mother Goose, while kicking off a graded double. A few minutes later, the incoming Hall of Famer sent out Double Thunder to roll in the Bashford Manor S. (G3) at Churchill Downs.
“She had been training well and got back to one turn,” assistant trainer Byron Hughes said. “We knew it was going to be a short field, and she ran well. We thought she would be forwardly placed. We had Chad’s filly (Always Carina from the Brown barn) on her inside and she sat right on her hip. Joel did a great job of keeping her right there and she responded well and got the win.”
“She ran really big today, ” Rosario said. “She was very comfortable and happy. I knew the horse on the lead was the horse to beat and she did it. She ran a big race today. She was moving very well for me.”
Chad Brown was second-guessing Flavien Prat’s ride on Always Carina, wondering out loud if she would have been better off blazing away early:
“She certainly didn’t run up to her capabilities today. Maybe switching her off and going a little too slow during the race – which she’s not really used to – in hindsight, might have put her to sleep a bit. We’ll have to see how she comes out of the race and see if there’s any other reason. But my first thought is that maybe we should have just let her roll on the front. She fought on bravely for second but that wasn’t how she had run her first two starts, that’s for sure.”
Prat, for his part, believed that Always Carina’s inexperience told in the end.
“My horse was traveling well and she accelerated nicely,” Prat said. “She just got beat by a filly who had more experience. I didn’t have any issues. She dug in well.”
Rewarding her backers with a $38.80 payout, Zaajel boosted her bankroll to $228,640 from her 5-3-0-0 line. The Kentucky-bred is a half-sister to Grade 2-placed Ajaaweed, both produced by the multiple stakes-placed Daaher mare Asiya. This is the family of Grade 1-winning sire Liaison and turf millionaire United.