Front-running was the theme in the Thanksgiving Day co-features at Churchill Downs. Played Hard lived up to her name, as well as 0.45-1 favoritism, to repel every challenge in the $485,000 Falls City (G3), and Dalika feasted upon her favorite turf course in the $268,500 Cardinal (G3).
Falls City (G3)
Rigney Racing’s Played Hard, a course-and-distance romper in the Sept. 17 Locust Grove (G3), was subsequently third to Malathaat in the Spinster (G1). Malathaat gilded that result by coming back to take a Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) thriller.
Thus Played Hard was the one to beat in the Falls City, and a succession of rivals tried to do just that. But the Phil Bauer filly ran the gauntlet, and up to form, in statement of intent for 2023.
Fastest, if not cleanest, from the gate, Played Hard first had Ava Grace poised on her outer flank through an opening quarter in :23.71. The pacesetting favorite floated her wide on the clubhouse turn and raced well out on the track entering the backstretch. That left a yawning gap for rail-drawn Leader of the Band, who probed through on the inside to chase through the half in :47.43.
When Played Hard put the early stalkers away by six furlongs in 1:11.43, her most serious threat emerged in the form of Bellamore, who loomed up on the far turn. Also trying to get involved was Moon Swag, cutting the corner as Played Hard continued to plow a wide path. Moon Swag’s effort soon flattened, leaving Bellamore as the lone persistent pursuer.
But Played Hard pinned her ears and kept on galloping. Under Joel Rosario, the daughter of Into Mischief held by one length in a final time of 1:49.39 for 1 1/8 miles.
“She keeps getting better,” Rosario said. “She fought hard on the lead and didn’t want to give it up. There were a couple horses that got close to her, but she never gave way.”
The 10-1 Bellamore excelled herself with a career-best performance in second, pulling five lengths clear of the rest. Deep-closing She’s All Wolfe, the only entrant who didn’t take a run at Played Hard, was along for third. Moon Swag, Leader of the Band, and the tailed-off Ava’s Grace concluded the order under the wire.
Played Hard advanced her record to 14-5-5-2, $978,390. Unraced at two, the bay was a progressive sophomore of 2021. She was just denied by Crazy Beautiful in last fall’s Seneca Overnight S., and signed off with another runner-up finish in the Comely (G3) at Aqueduct. Played Hard opened 2022 by earning her allowance stripes, and the four-year-old now heads into winter quarters in the form of her life.
“I’m actually pretty speechless right now,” Bauer said after the Falls City. “This is what it’s all about. You win a half-million dollar race on your home track with your family and the greatest owner in attendance. It can’t get much better on Thanksgiving.
“I’m so proud of Played Hard. She pinned her ears back and didn’t want to let anyone by. Things didn’t work out last time in the Spinster, but we got her back to Churchill, and she loves it here. We’re excited to keep her in training next year.”
Given her fondness for the Twin Spires, the La Troienne (G1) would be a logical goal on the first weekend in May.
Played Hard was bred by Susan Casner and sold for $280,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. Her dam, the Tiznow mare Well Lived, is a full sister to 2009 Dubai World Cup (G1) conqueror Well Armed. This is also the immediate family of Grade 1 heroes American Patriot and Cyberknife.
Bal-Mar Equine’s Dalika returned to the scene of her signature win, the Aug. 13 Beverly D. (G1), and enjoyed another wire job. Only the Cardinal was even easier, since she didn’t have to battle back or withstand any stretch tussle.
Trained by Al Stall Jr. and piloted by Brian Hernandez Jr., Dalika wasted no time in grabbing control. Adventuring, slightly favored at 1.72-1 compared to Dalika’s 1.86-1, initially looked to go with her, but conceded. The German-bred gray dictated terms through splits of :24.36, :49.07, and 1:13.61 on the firm turf, and continued to hold sway down the lane. A comfortable 1 3/4-length winner, Dalika clocked 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.61.
Perseverancia rallied from seventh to take second at 12.69-1. Adventuring, who briefly attempted to challenge in upper stretch, was relegated to third. Next came Sunny One, Lake Lucerne, Flippant, Pass the Plate, early stalker Curly Ruth, and Disappearing Act. Wave of Goodness was scratched.
Dalika’s seventh career stakes win boosted her bankroll to $1,441,559 from her 31-10-7-0 line. Her first four stakes victories came with the late Miguel Mena aboard – the 2020 One Dreamer S. in course-record time at Kentucky Downs, the Blushing K.D. and Al Stall Memorial during the 2020-21 Fair Grounds meet, and the 2021 Robert G. Dick Memorial (G3) at Delaware Park. This season, Dalika set a course record in the aforementioned Beverly D. and added the Sept. 10 Ladies Turf (G3) back at Kentucky Downs. She was rebounding from a trailing sixth in the Nov. 6 Fall Harvest S. at Keeneland.
“I’ve learned from watching Miguel (Mena) ride her that you just stay out of her way and she’ll give you her best run,” Hernandez said. “She’s just a solid filly. I told (owner) Paul (Varga) after the race that she could’ve easily went a mile and a half today. We just threw her last race out at Keeneland in the Fall Harvest. Things didn’t go her way that day and that wasn’t the Dalika that we know.”
Bred by Gestut Ammerland, the daughter of Pastorius and the Hurricane Run mare Drawn to Run has collected another seven stakes placings. Dalika was second versus males as a juvenile in the 2018 Prix Herod, the 2019 Riskaverse S. and Mrs. Revere (G2), the 2020 License Fee S., the 2021 Keertana S. and Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf, and the June 5 Mint Julep (G3) in her 2022 reappearance.
“Since we got her as a two-year-old,” Varga said, “she’s been so consistent in her races. She really likes it over here at Churchill. She’s had 31 races in her career, at all distances, and she’s given us 10 wins now. She’s so tough on the lead. She’s actually been a seven-time runner-up. This year particular she’s had a tough campaign. Every time it looks like she’s going to get passed, she stays game.”