With 2017 coming to an end, it’s time to look back at some of the best performances from the distaff division. All the likely suspects are here, along with what might be a couple of surprises.
5) LEWIS BAY– Rampart (G3) – Gulfstream Park, Race 5, December 16
LEWIS BAY was a top two- and three-year-old contender the past couple of years, recording easy wins in the Demoiselle Stakes (G2), Gazelle Stakes (G2) and Turnback the Alarm Handicap (G3) while placing in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Mother Goose Stakes (G1).
However, the Chad Brown-trained filly seemed on course to skip her entire four-year-old season, having last recorded a close second in the Comely Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct on November 26, 2016.
Turns out Lewis Bay was ready to run at least once in 2017, and that came in the December 16 Rampart Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park.
The Bernardini four-year-old set the early pace under a snug hold from jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. She was briefly headed by Curlin’s Approval to her inside midway down the backstretch, took command once again on the bend with Ortiz still sitting chilly, and sprinted away in the stretch to record a 1 1/4-length victory.
The filly returned to the winner’s circle off a more than year-long break and gave notice to the distaff division to be on the lookout in 2018.
4) ELATE – Alabama Stakes (G1) – Saratoga, Race 9, August 19
Much had been expected of ELATE following the Medaglia d’Oro filly’s 12 1/2-length maiden debut score at Aqueduct in November 2016. However, the Bill Mott trainee would not flash brilliance like that again until taking the Light Hearted Stakes at Delaware Park last June.
However, it wasn’t until the 1 1/4-mile Alabama Stakes (G1) at Saratoga on August 19 that Elate finally came into her own under jockey Jose Ortiz.
The dark bay miss found herself three wide on the first turn while facing eight rivals and then was forced to run between horses on the backstretch. Elate and Ortiz patiently waited for the right moment to go from midpack, and shot forward on the outside when that instant came entering the turn. The duo collared the pacesetting It Tiz Well and pulled away to be 5 1/2 lengths clear on the wire.
Elate followed her Alabama win with an 8 1/4-length victory in the Beldame Invitational (G1) against older runners, but it was the three-year-old filly classic at Saratoga where she finally lived up to that early promise. The Kentucky-bred lass capped off 2017 with a fourth-placing in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), and looks to be a major player in the distaff division next year.
3) ABEL TASMAN – Kentucky Oaks (G1) – Churchill Downs, Race 11, May 5
A sloppy, sealed track greeted California-shipper ABEL TASMAN when the bay filly lined up in the 143rd edition of the Kentucky Oaks (G1) on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Though unbeaten in three starts as a juvenile, the Bob Baffert pupil brought a pair of runner-up efforts into her Oaks try, having finished second in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (G3) and Santa Anita Oaks (G1) at Santa Anita Park prior to shipping outside of California for the first time to take part in the Run for the Lilies.
Nothing seemed to be going Abel Tasman’s way, not the track condition, her post (13) or early preps. In the end, though, nothing could stop the Quality Road filly from getting the win.
Jockey Mike Smith angled Abel Tasman over from her outside post to be last in the 14-strong field, and she got a face full of mud on the backstretch. The Hall of Fame rider kept his mount well off the rail and sent her widest of all rounding the final turn. Abel Tasman responded with a last-to-first move and then held off a game late rally from Daddys Lil Darling to triumph by 1 1/4 lengths.
The Kentucky Oaks began a three-race win streak that also included the Acorn Stakes (G1) and Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) in New York for Abel Tasman, but the sophomore really proved herself at Churchill over that messy track. The rest of her races this year would merely be icing on the cake.
2) FOREVER UNBRIDLED – Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) – Del Mar, Race 9, November 3
FOREVER UNBRIDLED only competed three times in 2017, but celebrated in the winner’s circle on each of those occasions.
The Dallas Stewart charge’s biggest win came in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), which pretty much guarantees her an Eclipse Award as the champion older female of 2017.
Forever Unbridled had only Abel Tasman beat early in the race but gradually made her way up to be outside of the closely packed main group of runners on the backstretch. The Unbridled’s Song five-year-old continued inching forward under John Velazquez until she found herself circling widest of all on the final turn. She collared Paradise Woods, who had been pressing the early pace in second, upon hitting the stretch and then held off Abel Tasman’s furious late run to win by a half-length.
Forever Unbridled was clearly best this year, vindicating her third-place effort from last year’s Distaff behind Beholder and Songbird when beating that latter runner in the Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) on August 26 at Saratoga.
This all after exiting the 2016 Distaff with an injury that could have seen the Charles Fipke homebred entering the breeding shed. Instead, Forever Unbridled’s connections gave her plenty of time to recover and she proved it to be the right decision at Del Mar.
1) SONGBIRD – Delaware Handicap (G1) – Delaware Park, Race 9, July 15
Dual champion SONGBIRD put together a stellar career that included nine Grade 1 wins and more than $4.5 million in lifetime earnings.
Any number of the Fox Hill Farm colorbearer’s races could make “Best Race” lists, probably topped by her battle with Beholder in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). However, the Medaglia d’Oro filly only competed three times in 2017, and her final win deserves top billing in this compilation of year-end favorites.
That would be the July 15 Delaware Handicap (G1), where the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee faced four rivals and was sent off the heavy 1-20 favorite. It wasn’t for how easy she won or a wide margin that she deserves the number one slot here, but for how the dark bay miss gutted out the score under jockey Mike Smith.
Songbird led throughout the 1 1/4-mile affair but visibly appeared leg-weary rounding the turn. Martini Glass ranged up to challenge and never let up the pressure in the stretch, but Songbird did not yield and crossed under the wire first.
It took more than talent for Songbird to get the length win that day – it required sheer will and a stubborn refusal to lose. The four-year-old miss wrapped up her career one race later when second to Forever Unbridled in the Personal Ensign Stakes (G1), but the Delaware ‘Cap should be remembered as the champion’s swan song as she heads off to an even tougher second career – being a mother.