Last year’s champion three-year-old filly Nest showed no rust in Sunday’s $186,000 Shuvee (G2), leveraging her tactical speed to dethrone older star Clairiere at Saratoga. Well handled by hot-riding Irad Ortiz Jr., the Todd Pletcher trainee secured the advantageous stalking spot in a small, paceless field, and kicked on too strongly for Clairiere to make a dent.
“I think the recency advantage that Clairiere had over us might have been slightly negated by the tactical advantage we probably had today,” summed up Aron Wellman, whose Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners campaigns Nest with Repole Stable and Michael House.
Although the race shape was predictable with only four distaffers, none of them speed-crazy, the overriding question was whether Nest could run up to her top form off the bench. Not only was she idle since her fourth behind Malathaat, Blue Stripe, and Clairiere in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), but Nest had her reappearance delayed by a lung infection.
“We wanted to get her back in June on Belmont Day,” co-owner Mike Repole said, referring to the June 10 Ogden Phipps (G1) won by Clairiere for the second straight year. “But Todd just thought she needed a little bit more time.”
Pletcher managed expectations going into the Shuvee, sounding a cautionary note about tackling a race-fit rival the caliber of Clairiere in the circumstances. The Hall of Fame trainer reiterated the message after Nest proved more than sharp enough to get away from Clairiere, and more significantly, fit enough to stay on well in front of that relentless foe.
“I felt like in her training – especially a couple of her five-furlong breezes at Belmont – she put in some real big gallop-outs,” Pletcher said. “I felt we were where wanted to be. My concern was running against a top-class mare like that off an eight-month layoff going a mile and an eighth. It’s not an easy task, but it takes an exceptional filly like Nest to be able to do that.
“One, you want to be ready today. Two, you don’t want to drain her today with bigger goals down the road. That’s what we were trying to balance out, and thankfully she was good enough to do that.”
With that context, defending Shuvee champion Clairiere was dispatched as the slight 0.75-1 favorite. Nest was also odds-on, but the second choice at 0.85-1.
Regular partner Ortiz, currently on fire as the Spa’s leading rider, was the other key factor in Nest’s victory. Making sure that Nest bagged early position from post 2, Ortiz had her in front in the opening strides until the 20-1 Pistol Liz Ablazen opted to dash ahead. Nest plowed a wider path to avoid being pocketed, and she was already in the ideal tracking spot as the longshot carved out leisurely fractions of :24.82 and :49.87.
“I was in a perfect position from the first turn, and after that just sit on her,” Ortiz noted. “She’s waiting for me. I was ready to go by the half-mile. If he (Joel Rosario aboard Clairiere) gets close to me, maybe I go with him, because it was like a match race. I mean we can say that, so that was the plan, but going to the half-mile I changed leads. I looked, there was nobody there, so I still kept waiting a little more longer, so it worked out perfect.”
“I think the first half-mile was critical,” Pletcher said. “We wanted her to get some position. We thought Kendrick (Carmouche aboard Pistol Liz Ablazen) would likely be the pacesetter, but he waited a little while to go. Irad held his position until she cleared him and then got into that comfortable rhythm. From that point, it was just seeing where and when Clairiere was going to make her move.”
Clairiere, on the other hand, had to be nudged along to take closer order than usual and keep tabs on Nest. Ortiz, mindful of where Clairiere was, took a few glances back as he chose when to ask Nest to go.
“I’m just biding my time,” Ortiz said. “If I don’t, she comes from a layoff, if I don’t have to ask her to go earlier, I don’t want to. So, I looked to the side and saw nobody. So I said, ‘Where is the filly (Clairiere)?’. I have to win, so I looked and she was in behind me, inside of me, so I can wait a little longer. And after that, when I turned for home I just let her go.”
Drawing nearer to Pistol Liz Ablazen at the six-furlong mark in 1:14.43, Nest seized control leaving the far turn and established the decisive break on Clairiere. But Nest’s connections knew better than to take the stretch run for granted.
“I have so much respect for Clairiere,” Pletcher said, “and I know how good she is – she’s one of those that the race is never over. You can feel like you have a two-length lead and she just keeps coming at you. I was watching her intently and knowing she was going to make a big run at her.”
Clairiere indeed delivered her late kick, pulling 10 lengths clear of third-placer Skratch Kat with Pistol Liz Ablazen a further 9 3/4 lengths back in last. But Clairiere could not bridge the gap with Nest. Bred along a similar cross as Clairiere, as a daughter of Curlin and an A.P. Indy mare, Nest galloped away by 2 1/4 lengths while clocking 1:50.72.
“She finished great all the way to the wire,” Ortiz said. “I don’t hit her.”
“I’m super proud of the filly,” Pletcher said. “She’s all class, and it’s nice to see her come back and get back on track. We got a bit of a delayed start, but she showed she’s still in top-class form…
“Nest was able to quicken away from her and keep to task. Super effort beating an older mare like that, as accomplished as she is.”
Repole likewise commented on what it meant to topple Clairiere off the bench.
“Going a mile and an eighth after eight, nine months off against a horse like Clairiere, that was real impressive,” her co-owner said. “They could have gone around two more times, she wasn’t going to be passed. Todd did an amazing job, give him credit. Irad is just Irad. No one better than him right now.
“After he peeked back about seven times in a row, it (gave me confidence). He knew who the horse to beat was and he moved at the perfect time…
“I thought if we could get the jump on Clairiere, she’d have to come get us. Just a special, special performance. This is going to be a fun back half of the year with his filly.”
Clairiere’s connections hope for a different set-up in the rematch, which could come in the Aug. 25 Personal Ensign (G1).
“She’s a great mare,” Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Just getting caught up in these races that have zero pace in them. She just needed to do more early and get involved.”
“I was following the winner,” Rosario said of his passage aboard Clairiere. “Turning for home, I was right there with him (Ortiz), and he got away a little bit. I followed him and it looked for a second like we might get there, but that filly (Nest) just took off again.
“There wasn’t too much speed in the race and it set up everything a little different. She finished really good for me.”
Nest remained unbeaten at Saratoga, where she vaulted to the top of the three-year-old fillies’ division last summer with routs of the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) and Alabama (G1). Her sterling record of 12-8-2-1, $2,083,050, also reflects wins in the 2021 Demoiselle (G2) as well as the 2022 Suncoast S. and Beldame (G2) over elders. A grinding second in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), she turned the corner with a stronger runner-up performance in the Belmont (G1).
Judging by how Nest thrived at the Spa a year ago, it would be no surprise if she’s primed to go 4-for-4 over the track in the Personal Ensign. Pletcher prefers to let the dust settle, though, on the Shuvee first.
“We’d like to run back in the Personal Ensign if we think that’s enough time,” her trainer said. “The ultimate decision will be what we do for a prep for the Breeders’ Cup (Distaff) – do we go back to New York like we did last year, or possibly the Spinster (G1) at Keeneland. Obviously, we have to suss out how she comes out of it. My initial assessment is she came back with pretty good energy.”
The Shuvee’s pace scenario hints that it wasn’t a hard race on her. Another incentive to advance to the Personal Ensign is the chance to confirm form with Clairiere, her leading rival for the divisional Eclipse Award. If Nest can beat her again, that head-to-head record can matter in the championship chase, pending the Breeders’ Cup.