Sunday’s Houston Racing Festival witnessed dramatic finishes in the four supporting stakes and favorites who obliged in both Grade 3 features.
Houston Ladies Classic
Disposing of a midrace challenge, 2-5 favorite Letruska won as she pleased in Sunday’s $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic (G3). The former Mexican champion continued her emergence stateside, following her victory in last summer’s Shuvee (G3) at Saratoga and recent romp in the Dec. 12 Rampart (G3) at Gulfstream Park.
Trainer Fausto Gutierrez mentioned the Apple Blossom (G1) as a target. Now that Letruska has dominated two straight Grade 3s, the daughter of Super Saver earned her way back up to a higher level.
Jockey Jesus Castanon was riding Letruska for the first time, but the pair clicked beautifully at Sam Houston. The outside post 7 was no impediment as she secured the lead, and angled over, through an initial quarter in :23.66.
Although the rail-drawn Motion Emotion had been unable to prevent Letruska’s opening gambit, she had enough room to sneak through on the inside at the half in :48.56. Motion Emotion upped the ante to the 6-furlong mark in 1:12.99, matching strides with Letruska and even heading her between calls.
Letruska was just humoring her. As soon as Castanon let out a notch, the favorite put Motion Emotion away on the far turn and galloped by 3 1/2 lengths.
The stalking Ujjayi stayed on for a clear second, four lengths to the good of defending champion Lady Apple. Next came Figure It Out, Motion Emotion, Jeweled Princess, and She’s Our Fastest.
The 123-pound highweight, Letruska covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.02. St. George Stable’s Kentucky homebred boosted her bankroll to $487,319 from a 16-12-0-1 record, including a pair of majors in the course of her perfect six-race career in Mexico. Letruska extended her unbeaten sequence to seven in the 2019 Copa Invitacional del Caribe at Gulfstream Park, later the scene of her first non-restricted U.S. stakes win in last June’s Added Elegance.
The 5-year-old mare is a half-sister to Grade 1-placed multiple stakes scorer Trigger Warning. Their dam, the Grade 2-placed Successful Appeal mare Magic Appeal, is a full sister to Grade 1-winning sire J P’s Gusto. This is the immediate family of Canadian champion Miss Mischief, and further back, Eclipse champion Proud Spell.
John B. Connally Turf Cup
The other Grade 3 on the card, the $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3), produced a formful result as well courtesy of 3-2 favorite Spooky Channel. Under a well-timed ride by Julien Leparoux, the Brian Lynch veteran got a decisive jump on Ajourneytofreedom, the 3.90-1 second choice from the barn of seven-time Connally winner Mike Maker.
Maker also had the front-running Conviction Trade, who nearly went all the way in the 1 1/2-mile affair. Coming out on top of the pace scrum after an opening quarter in :24.57 on the firm turf, Conviction Trade opened up by daylight through splits of :48.97, 1:14.00, and 1:40.52.
Terry Hamilton’s Spooky Channel took up a handy position in the main body of the field, crept closer on their second pass down the backstretch, and advanced as the nearest pursuer on the final turn. Conviction Trade was still in front in upper stretch, but Spooky Channel wore him down. Then Ajourneytofreem erupted from further back to close the gap, only to have the wire come too soon, and his rally came up a neck short.
Conviction Trade checked in another length astern in third, giving Maker both minor awards in the Connally for the second straight year. Tenfold, Signalman, Celerity, Strong Tide, Henley’s Joy, Marzo (another Maker), Changi, Vettori Kin, and Tut’s Revenge rounded out the order of finish.
By clocking 2:30.94, Spooky Channel improved his resume to 18-9-2-0, $395,022. The English Channel gelding had started out at Turf Paradise, where he captured three non-black-type stakes for trainer Clay Brinson. In his third outing for Lynch, Spooky Channel pulled a 36-1 upset in the 2020 W.L. McKnight (G3). He’d used an eighth in the Ft. Lauderdale (G2) as a tune-up then, and repeated the program a year later. But as a measure of his progress in the interim, Spooky Channel was fourth in the Dec. 12 renewal of the Ft. Lauderdale.
Bred by Calumet Farm, Spooky Channel sold for a mere $10,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling. The 6-year-old is out of the Kitten’s Joy mare Spooky Kitten, who placed in all three Canadian fillies’ classics in 2011.
Rest of Houston Racing Festival
John C. Oxley’s Palazzi nailed Excess Magic and Dyn O Mite at the wire in the $200,000 Texas Turf Mile in Texas Turf Mile. Trained by Mark Casse and ridden by Declan Carroll, the 5-2 chance surged to finish his stakes debut in 1:36.89. The $510,000 son of Pioneerof the Nile and multiple Grade 2-placed stakes vixen Kindle is now 2-for-2 since switching to turf, having broken his maiden at Fair Grounds last out.
In the $75,000 Stonerside Sprint on the main track, the 6-1 Sky Ride got up in time to force a dead-heat with 17-10 chance Hollis. Even-money favorite Nitrous speared through late to snatch third. The John Ortiz-trained Hollis had been in command from the start with Reylu Gutierrez, until Sky Ride lifted late for Leandro Goncalves. The two posted six furlongs in 1:10.70. Sky Ride was stepping up to stakes company for trainer J.R. Caldwell, while Hollis had won the Oct. 1 Jim McKay Turf Sprint.
Brad Grady’s Fast Boat went one better in the $100,000 Turf Sprint formerly sponsored by Frontier Utilities, now by Pulse Power. Runner-up by a half-length last year, the Joe Sharp charge swept fast and late to deny Carotari by a neck. Miguel Mena guided the 28-10 shot to his first stakes score through five furlongs in :57.05.
Stakes debutante Morning Molly took the nightcap, the $75,000 Jersey Lilly Turf. The Tom Proctor mare pounced for Ty Kennedy before 2-1 favorite Stunning Sky was unleashed, and she held on by a head. Sent off at 29-10, Morning Molly completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.70.