March 29, 2023

Gina Romantica upstages McKulick in Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup

Gina Romantica wins the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland (Photo by Coady Photography)

Trainer Chad Brown won the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland for the fifth time on Saturday, but not with his odds-on favorite. Instead, it was the 4.53-1 Gina Romantica who quickened best to upstage stablemate McKulick.

Purchased for $1.025 million as a Keeneland September yearling, Gina Romantica is now the second Grade 1 winner, and fourth graded performer, for the Unbridled’s Song mare Special Me.

Her top-earning half-siblings were accomplished on dirt – millionaire Gift Box, hero of the 2019 Santa Anita H. (G1), and multiple Grade 2-winning sprinter Stonetastic. The mare’s third graded winner, Special Forces, has excelled on Woodbine’s all-weather.

Thus Gina Romantica didn’t start out with any turf expectations, but rather tried her hand on dirt first. After disappointing in both stakes attempts on the main track, the Into Mischief filly found herself on the switch to grass. Exploding from far off the pace to capture the restricted Riskaverse S. at Saratoga Aug. 25, Gina Romantica missed by a half-length in the Sept. 18 Pebbles (G3) at Aqueduct, and continued her upward curve here.

The Peter Brant colorbearer broke on top with Flavien Prat, who had an inkling to go forward in a race that didn’t figure to have much pace. But when Irish shipper Paris Peacock and Southern Californian Bellabel had similar ideas, Prat let them go and settled Gina Romantica a few lengths back in fourth.

McKulick likewise wanted to sit handy, perched in third through the opening quarter in :23.66. Down the backstretch, however, Gina Romantica advanced into third on the inside. McKulick lapsed a bit farther back in fourth. That, combined with her ground loss, worked against the favorite, especially considering that she was shortening up considerably in trip.

Paris Peacock strutted through fractions of :48.22 and 1:12.83, with Bellabel keeping tabs in second. McKulick began to close her gap rounding the far turn, but taking the overland route, while Gina Romantica enjoyed a ground-saving run. According to Trakus, McKulick covered 32 feet more than the winner.

Splitting Paris Peacock and Bellabel in midstretch, Gina Romantica burst to a 1 3/4-length victory. The bay finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.20 and returned $11.06.

“She broke really well,” Prat said. “I actually was OK to make the lead, but the pace was fast so I got myself tucked in. She relaxed well and really kicked on well when it was time to make a move…Turning for home I got a good gap and squeezed on in, and she responded really well.”

“Five Queen Elizabeth (wins), this is probably the most memorable, obviously, with the recent passing of The Queen,” Brown said. “What an honor even to participate in the race, but to have such success in it—we’re just really lucky to work with these horses.”

McKulick stayed on in her dour fashion to collar Bellabel for second, giving Brown an exacta in this race for the second straight year. She was the second daughter of Frankel to go down as the favorite as a race named in honor of the late monarch on Saturday. Earlier in the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) on Champions Day at Ascot, the Frankel filly Inspiral was sixth after standing still when the gate opened.

“It was a perfect trip,” McKulick’s rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., recapped. “She broke good. I got a perfect spot on the backside. I have no excuses. The other filly (Gina Romantica) was better today. She cut the corner and everything opened up for her. She was there and gave a good turn of foot.”

Bellabel held third by a head from the rallying California Angel. She’s Gone was a non-threatening fifth, and Paris Peacock folded to last. New Year’s Eve was scratched.

Gina Romantica’s bankroll stands at $553,540 from her 7-4-1-0 line. Unraced at two, she made an impressive debut Mar. 12 at Tampa Bay Downs. Gina Romantica tried the Beaumont (G3) during Keeneland’s spring meet, only to fade to a distant sixth. She rebounded in an off-the-turf allowance in the Belmont Park slop, but again failed to shine in stakes company when fourth in the Wilton S. at Saratoga. Now she’s gone from dirt underachiever to Grade 1 turfiste.

Brown commented on her development.

“A lot of patience and a lot of Plan B and C with a horse we thought first was a dirt horse. I want to thank Liz Crow and her team for picking the horse out. She was born and raised locally, right here in Lexington at Machmer Hall, and she’s a Keeneland graduate.” 

Brown added that the step up to 1 1/8 miles, her growing experience on turf, and a heady ride by Prat all helped.

“She caught a clean break, and I thought Flavien rode a terrific race. She proved she can get the extra distance and step up with top-class fillies.”

Gina Romantica was bred by Machmer Hall and its principals Carrie and Craig Brogden, who bought Special Me for a bargain $6,000 at Keeneland January in 2009. The prolific gray’s latest offspring is a weanling full brother to Gina Romantica.