Friday’s inaugural running of the $250,000 Matron S. at Oaklawn Park was the comeback spot of choice for two sprint queens, Wicked Halo and Matareya, with the former prevailing. Judging by how they fought out the finish, it might also be a sneak preview of forthcoming divisional battles.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred Wicked Halo was last seen finishing third in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) to champions Goodnight Olive and Echo Zulu. Godolphin’s Matareya had been off longer, since her third as the 3-10 favorite in the Aug. 6 Test (G1).
The duo had met once before, in the Eight Belles (G2) on Kentucky Oaks Day, when Matareya rolled to victory and Wicked Halo closed for third. But Wicked Halo was still rounding into form on the first Friday of last May, and the Steve Asmussen filly went on to rattle off four straight stakes wins going into the Breeders’ Cup.
Thus in their Matron clash, bettors gave Wicked Halo the slight edge as the even-money favorite, while Matareya was dispatched at 3-2. A trio of scratches reduced the field to four, and eliminated show wagering.
But there was still ferocious pace on tap courtesy of the other two – Pretty Birdie and 12.60-1 longshot I’m the Boss of Me. Pretty Birdie, who had to concede the market leaders seven pounds, dashed forward on a track upgraded to muddy in the prior race. It had been sloppy on an afternoon of adverse weather, including a tornado warning that caused the cancellation of the third race, and a further delay ahead of the fourth.
As Pretty Birdie zipped a quarter in :21.15, I’m the Boss of Me scampered up on the rail to force the issue, and put her head in front briefly at the half in :44.25. Matareya and the wide-traveling Wicked Halo were content to track them until rounding the far turn.
Jockey Flavien Prat appeared to pull off a tactical coup aboard Matareya, who cut the corner turning for home and struck the front. Wicked Halo took the overland route, but she was bearing down on Matareya in the lane. Under Tyler Gaffalione, the relentless gray drove to a three-quarters of a length decision in 1:09.31.
“She had a very impressive season last year,” Gaffalione said. “Got a nice freshening. Everybody said she had been working great. She came out and ran a great race. Very impressive.”
Prat thought he’d nicked the race with his rail-skimming maneuver.
“She ran a good race,” Prat said of Matareya. “She broke well and I was in the pocket. Made a big move down on the inside. I thought I was home free and just got outrun.”
The top two were in a race of their own by that stage. There was a 6 3/4-length gap back to I’m the Boss of Me, and another 12 1/2 lengths to Pretty Birdie. Teddy’s Barino, Samurai Charm, and Dealing Justice were withdrawn.
Wicked Halo joined millionaires’ row with earnings of $1,032,700 from a scorecard of 12-7-0-4. The Gun Runner filly emulated her dam, the Tapit mare Just Wicked, by capturing the Adirondack (G2) at two. Wicked Halo also placed third in the 2021 Debutante S. at Churchill Downs and the 2022 Purple Martin S. at Oaklawn. Her stakes-winning sequence last term comprised the Leslie’s Lady S. and Tepin S. back at Churchill, the Prioress (G2), and the Raven Run (G2).
Asmussen praised Wicked Halo and hot sire Gun Runner, who also had the winner of the preceding eighth race, the Ken McPeek-trained Gunning.
“Talented group of mares,” Asmussen said of the Matron, “and the exciting part is for her to come back running that fast. She finished off the year in spectacular fashion. I think she had four stakes wins and then was third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She got a little break off that. For her to come back and beat a filly the quality of Matayera in such competitive fashion is very exciting.
“It’s very exciting for her to start her four-year-old season running as fast as she did. I don’t think we should be surprised with that with the Gun Runners, knowing how he was. He was a fabulous two-year-old, a great three-year-old and an unbeatable four-year-old. And I think the Gun Runners are showing as they age they also continue to get faster.”
When asked about Oaklawn’s establishing this race, Asmussen agreed that the new sprint stakes is well positioned on the calendar.
“The timing of it is ideal for the Churchill Downs Derby City Distaff (G1) at seven-eighths” on Kentucky Derby Day.