April 15, 2024

Malathaat powers into Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Spinster romp

Malathaat lumbered clear in the Spinster (Photo by Coady Photography)

About four hours after younger stablemate Nest flaunted her class in the Beldame (G2), older star Malathaat likewise obliged as the odds-on favorite in Sunday’s $600,000 Spinster (G1) at Keeneland.

The Todd Pletcher filly put aside her lackadaisical habit of cutting it close and drew off by 5 1/4 lengths in this “Win and You’re In” over the same track and trip as the Distaff (G1). Thus the stage is set for a Breeders’ Cup clash between last year’s champion three-year-old filly, Malathaat, and Nest, her heir apparent.

Bred on the same cross as Nest, as daughters of Curlin and A.P. Indy mares, Malathaat was also coming off a major victory at Saratoga. In Malathaat’s case, it was the Aug. 27 Personal Ensign (G1).

The Shadwell Stable colorbearer ranked as the 0.44-1 choice in her Keeneland homecoming. Although Malathaat had won both prior outings over the Lexington oval, in the 2021 Ashland (G1) and the Apr. 22 Doubledogdare (G3), Pletcher was wary of defending Spinster champ Letruska. As it turned out, Letruska had company up front.

Played Hard broke like a shot to the lead, while Letruska was off a beat slow. Letruska recovered to get within a half-length of the front runner through an opening quarter in :24.41, and asserted herself down the backstretch. Yet Letruska’s grip was tenuous in splits of :47.90 and 1:12.25. Longshot Princess of Cairo applied pressure on the outside, as Played Hard was ultimately unable to hold her position on the inside.

Malathaat, initially settled in fourth, began to be stoked up on the far turn. Regular pilot John Velazquez was well aware of the filly’s needing time to uncoil herself, but she responded well to range up alongside Letruska. Overhauling her upon straightening for home, Malathaat imposed her authority in 1:51.05 in the 1 1/8-mile test.

Army Wife, who was last of the quintet early and followed the winner’s move, stayed on as easily best of the rest by 3 1/4 lengths. Played Hard churned on in third, 8 1/4 lengths ahead of Letruska, and Princess of Cairo trailed.

Malathaat was posting her biggest margin of victory since her 7 3/4-length romp in the 2020 Tempted S. as a juvenile. Since then, the big bay had usually just gotten up in time, or suffered defeats. She stayed unbeaten through the Demoiselle (G2), aforementioned Ashland, and 2021 Kentucky Oaks (G1), but got worn down in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1). Although rebounding in the Alabama (G1), she was a near-miss third in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Even her comeback score in the Doubledogdare had the vibe of a filly not quite delivering the maximum. That sense was only confirmed when Malathaat had the June 11 Ogden Phipps (G1) within her grasp, only to idle and let the more determined Clairiere take it from her at the wire.

Pletcher accordingly added blinkers to Malathaat for the July 24 Shuvee (G2). The equipment change couldn’t help an uncharacteristic lethargy at the Spa, and she placed second again to the resurgent Clairiere.

The headgear did take effect next time, though, in the Personal Ensign, and Malathaat turned the tables. But the Spinster was far more emphatic, suggesting that she’s finally retaining her focus on the job.

“I was concerned there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of pace,” Pletcher said. “My biggest concern was that Letruska might get loose on the lead, and when she wasn’t, there was at least some entertainment there. I thought that helped, and it looked like Johnny was always very comfortable.”

Velazquez gave a detailed briefing on her performance:

“The first quarter of a mile I knew was slow. Then when the other horse (Letruska) got down inside, it was like, ‘OK, there’s at least going to be a little bit of pace,” and he (jockey Tyler Gaffalione) kind of held his position going into the backstretch.

“At the half-mile pole, I had to make my decision, whether to stay behind that horse or go around him and make sure I put a little bit of pressure by the three-eighths pole. I got there a little bit too soon. I was a little hesitant to get to the lead a little too soon. By the quarter pole, I saw Tyler was tapping on the horse (Letruska), and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to pass him and hopefully that discourages him.’

“Then (Malathaat) kept running today. Normally when she gets to the lead she slows down, and she did, but at the same time she was running a little bit. Right at the wire, she (moved sideways) and she almost left me at the wire. But she was much the best today. Thanks to Todd and the whole team for a great job.”

A $1.05 million Keeneland September yearling, Malathaat is living up to her pedigree with a resume of 13-9-3-1, $2,750,825. The daughter of Grade 1 star Dreaming of Julia, herself out of multiple Grade 1-winning sprinter Dream Rush, was bred in Kentucky by Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings.

Malathaat will try the Distaff again as an older, wiser incarnation, in blinkers, with the benefit of a prep. Last season, she did not race between Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup. Pletcher chose a different strategy for 2022.

“It’s great when you have one in their third year of training and you get to know them pretty well and kind of know what they like,” Pletcher said. “You could tell that this year she’s a bigger, stronger version of last year’s self and needed a little more training. That’s why last year we opted to go from the Alabama to the Breeders’ Cup. But we thought with an older, more mature filly that’s carrying more condition, that a prep race in between was more appropriate.”

A prep race was also deemed appropriate for Nest, and the Pletcher queens will be tuned for an epic Distaff.