Saratoga Race Course has a reputation for its ability to humble even those who seem impervious to being knocked down a peg. It doesn’t matter if a horse is among the demigods who have won a Triple Crown or if they sport a record that is unblemished, there is something about the historic venue that seems to get a kick out of making a mockery out of what seems obvious on paper.
As much as the Spa can wreak havoc on racing royalty, it can also produce moments that remind those who participate in Thoroughbred racing why they have committed themselves to a sport that routinely tests patience and faith. In the 105th running of the $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) on July 24, everything that makes Saratoga a jewel of the industry came charging towards the wire at the end of the 1 1/8-miles spectacle.
After spending her last pair of starts taking a backseat to the two sophomore fillies widely considered the division’s best, the upstart Maracuja brought her team to tears with the way she asserted herself in a test that was supposed to be a one-horse showcase. The daughter of Honor Code gave trainer Rob Atras his first career top-level win when she fought past previously unbeaten multiple Grade 1 winner Malathaat late to upset the Coaching Club America Oaks by a head.
Both Maracuja and Malathaat were making their first starts since running in the April 30 Kentucky Oaks (G1), but that was about where most pundits thought the similarities between the two ended. On that Friday afternoon at Churchill Downs three months ago, Malathaat stamped herself as the class of her ranks when she turned back Search Results to capture the signature race for 3-year-old fillies and remain unblemished in five career starts.
Maracuja, meanwhile, was seventh in the Oaks, having earned her spot in the race when she ran second to Search Results in the April 3 Gazelle Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct. Under deft handling from jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. on Saturday, the gray filly was able to add Malathaat and her 1-5 favoritism to the famed list of conquered favorites at the Spa after pressing the early pace and then uncorking her best run with a three-wide move off the final turn.
“She was very good going into the (Kentucky) Oaks, she just broke a little flat footed and got shuffled back in the turn,” Atras said. “She really didn’t get a great trip that day and it wasn’t a true showing of her. She’s obviously improved a lot the past few months.
“She loves the two turns. She puts a lot into her gallops every day. The further, the better for her. It’s never over until it’s over and as you can see, she needed every part of the mile and an eighth to win.”
Prior to the Coaching Club American Oaks, Maracuja’s only other victory came when she broke her maiden at third asking going 6 ½ furlongs at Aqueduct on Feb. 21. With only four horses passing the entry box for Saturday’s race, she was the longest shot on the board and the only one in digits at odds of 14-1.
None of that mattered once the gate sprung open as Santana rode her with the confidence of a top contender. With Malathaat breaking right next to her out of post 1, Maracuja challenged Shadwell Stable’s filly for the early lead going into the first turn and stayed at her hip in second through the opening quarter mile in :23.38. When graded stakes winner Clairiere came up on the outside to run at Malathaat midway down the backstretch, Santana let Maracuja drop back to third as the half mile went in :47.13.
“The trip was perfect. She broke really well today,” Santana said. “She was running comfortably. Rob liked the filly a lot and I was happy with her. There wasn’t much pressure in this race. He told me, ‘Just do what you have to do’ and we took the victory today.
“I had some pressure on the side from the 4 (Clairiere) and I just let my filly take a deep breath. As soon as I took her back out, she came rolling. She ran a great race today.”
Nearing the far turn, Malathaat and Clairiere were heads apart and looked poised to separate themselves from the other two, but Santana urged Maracuja up from the three-path with an aggressive hand ride. After Clairiere gave way with a furlong to go, Maracuja and Malathaat hooked up with the former digging in under left-handed encouragement, completing the course in 1:49.29 over a track rated fast.
“When they turned for home, I thought we had a shot,” Atras said. “It looked like we were definitely going to be second but as the wire kept getting closer, she just really laid it down. (Malathaat), I didn’t think we were going to get by her, to be honest.”
Malathaat held for second, 5 ¾ lengths clear of Clairiere in third with Rockpaperscissors eased across the line in fourth – but walking off under her own power. Even in defeat, though, the Todd Pletcher trainee lost little in the way of stature considering her resume also includes a win the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland this past April.
“You have to play the cards you’re dealt. She was doing great,” said John Velazquez, jockey for Malathaat. “She was comfortable in what she was doing, but she had to fight the whole way around and obviously set it up for somebody else. She’s a great horse and you can’t take that away from her.”
Bred in Kentucky by River Bend Farm and Austin and Jamie Musselman and owned by Beach Haven Thoroughbreds, Maracuja improves her record to two wins from six starts and more than tripled her career earnings by bringing her bankroll to $407,100.
John Sakkos, the founding partner of Beach Haven Thoroughbreds, said the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama contested at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 21 at Saratoga could be his filly’s possible next target.
“It was nerve-racking, especially after coming in seventh in the Oaks, but it was exciting,” he said. “I was just hoping we would perform better than the Oaks. She had been doing well and Rob and the team have done a phenomenal job with her.”