'Lightning' Strikes for Pletcher in Gulfstream Oaks

'Lightning' Strikes for Pletcher in Gulfstream Oaks


By Ed Gray

 HALLANDALE, FL – While many in attendance wore pink at Gulfstream Park on a day that benefited the “Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure,” trainer Todd  Pletcher sported a winning smile Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

The 2011 meeting’s leading trainer saddled five winners on the card, including R Heat Lighting, an 8 ¼-length winner of the $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks (G2), and Awesome Maria, who powered to an 8-length victory in the $150,000 Rampart (G3).

R Heat Lightning finished off her trainer’s banner day with a spectacular performance, while establishing herself as the horse to beat in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 6. The 3-year-old daughter of Trippi, who was forced out on the first turn, settled nicely a few lengths off the pacesetters along the backstretch before making a three-wide sweep on the turn into the homestretch. The 3-5 favorite was never threatened thereafter as she drew away under a hand ride by John Velazquez.

“She’s starting to relax more in her races. She’s not an easy filly to ride, but Johnny has gotten to know her and what to do. You’re always a little concerned when they have to go wide in the first turn like that, but she was in the clear, which in the important thing,” Pletcher said.

Island School, who trailed the seven-horse field early under Alex Solis, closed well to finish a distant second, four lengths ahead of Salary Drive, a 50-1 long shot ridden by Alex Trujillo.

R Heat Lightning, who captured the one-mile Davona Dale (G2) by 7 ¼ lengths on Feb. 26, ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 1/5.

“She relaxed really well again today.  The race set up perfectly,” said Velazquez, who rode four of Pletcher’s five winners. “They were going fast enough so we could track the pace and have something to run at.  She was so relaxed and had plenty to finish.  She made my day.”

Pletcher said he wasn’t surprised by the sparkling performance by R Heat Lightning, who had won the Spinaway (G1) and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies last year.

“I wasn’t surprised that she ran that kind of race today after the way she ran the last time , and she ran almost as fast as Awesome Maria,” said Pletcher, referring to the 1:49 clocking of 4-year-old Awesome Maria’s Rampart score. “I didn’t think she got quite the respect she deserved after winning the Spinaway and finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup last year, but now I think she’ll be recognized at the head of the class.”

Trainer Shug McGaughey said there’s a distinct possibility that his runner-up will once again try to challenge R Heat Lightning in the Kentucky Oaks.

“It’s very hard to catch up over this track from the back, but we always want to let her run her race, and that’s what we did today. I’m pleased. We’re eligible for an a-other-than (allowance) and we were just second in the Grade 2 stakes,” McGaughey said. “We thought going two turns was what she’d like, and she’ll keep improving. I’ll have to think the Oaks is a possibility, I’ll have to talk to Mr. (Will) Farish and see what he wants to do.”

It’s Tricky, the 8-5 second betting choice who was undefeated in three starts at Aqueduct, was never a factor while closing to a distant fourth under Alex Garcia.

“It’s surprising. We thought she’d be on the lead or closer to the lead and she was just a little dull today in the race. Maybe the change in climate coming from New York to here might have been a factor,” said Neal McLaughlin, assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “She looks fine. She was just quiet out of the gate.”


‘Maria’ Awesome in Rampart


Just one race before R Heat Lightning stamped herself as the early favorite for the Kentucky Oaks, Awesome Maria established herself as arguably the best older filly or mare in the country while leaving 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Unbridled Belle in her wake in the Rampart.

Awesome Maria settled in third behind pacesetter Persuading and Unrivaled Bell along the backstretch and into the far turn before John Velazquez asked her for her run leaving the turn into the backstretch. The daughter of Maria’s Mon responded and swept to the lead entering the stretch and drew off to victory by eight lengths.

“She was really good today.  Around the first turn she relaxed really well for me and then was there for me when I needed her,” said Velezquez. “There was no question in my mind about the extra distance going into this race.  The only question was: Would she relax? – which she did.”

Longshot Successful Song, a 25-1 outsider ridden by Edgar Prado, closed along the rail to get second money by 2-1./2 lengths over third-place finisher, Unrivaled Belle, the 7-5 second betting choice ridden by Kent Desormeaux.

Awesome Maria had previously won the Sabin (G3) at Gulfstream in her 2011 debut on Feb. 19.

“She just reached a new level in her training since we got her down here this winter,” said Pletcher, whose other winners on the card were Holiday Flare (third), Mayday Maria (fourth) and Saavy Supreme (eighth) “We’ll point her to the Ogden Phipps (Belmont Park on June 18), but she might run in the Shuvee (Belmont on May 21) before that.”

Unbridled Belle had not raced since scoring in the Ladies Classic on Nov. 27, leading trainer Bill Mott to write off the third-place finish as a much-needed race.

“We thought it was possible first start out going a mile and an eighth. A mile and an eighth is kind of stretching it to begin with. That’s about as far as she wants to run,” Mott said. “First time out of the box, a flat mile race might have been better for us, but we’re trying to get to the La Troienne (at Churchill Downs on May 6), and this was nice timing to do that.”