Saturday, April 21, 2012

Oaks Contender: Believe You Can

The historic Churchill Downs dirt surface had been turned into an oval of slop, ready for ten talented three-year-old fillies to gallop across it for the most prestigious race generated for fillies their age: the Kentucky Oaks (GI). Proud Spell, a stocky bay filly in the orange and green colors of former governor of the Bluegrass State, Brereton C. Jones, loaded into the starting gate below the Twin Spires before 100,046 fans. Her stablemate, Eight Belles, had been scratched out of the Oaks, her preference belonging to the next day’s renowned Kentucky Derby (GI). Tragically, Eight Belles’ remarkable performance in the Derby would end in catastrophe. For Proud Spell, however, she would carry the same trainer and jockey to a victory.

Following her Oaks triumph, Proud Spell captured two more graded stakes victories en route to being named Champion Three-Year-Old Filly of 2008. Her trainer, Larry Jones, had earlier that year announced that it would be his final year of training. With teary eyes, the racing world bid him farewell.

However, Jones soon returned to racing in 2011. He was greeted with a warm welcome and picked up right where he’d left off, conditioning the eventual 2011 Horse of the Year, the brilliant mare Havre de Grace. He continued to strong into 2012, revealing several talented three-year-olds at Fair Grounds Racecourse in New Orleans, Louisiana. Among those sophomores was Believe You Can, a filly who was sired by the same sire as Proud Spell – the graded stakes-winning Proud Citizen, who had finished second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness Stakes (GI) in 2002 behind War Emblem.

Believe You Can debuted in June of her two-year-old career at Delaware Park, finishing fourth behind two eventual stakes-placed fillies. Her second start would be much more successful; she ran gamely to score in a five-furlong maiden special weight over the same track by a neck after leading from start to finish. She continued her Delaware winning ways next out, dominating a non-winners of two lifetime allowance optional claiming by 4 ½ lengths in August after racing just off the pace.

Believe You Can’s graded stakes debut came at the competitive Belmont fall meet, in which she impressively took the six-furlong Tempted Stakes (GIII) over a small field that included the graded stakes-winning Gerogie’s Angel and the stakes-placed Select Cat. She displayed a slightly new dimension, coming from off the pace to score, though she wasn’t far from the leaders due to the short field.

Her final juvenile start came in the Pocahontas Stakes (GII) at Churchill Downs, in which she finished an uninspiring sixth of twelve. It was a deep field, however. Crossing the wire ahead of Believe You Can was the eventual multiple graded stakes-winning On Fire Baby, the graded stakes-placed And Why Not, and the stakes-placed and future multiple stakes-winning Glinda the Good. In the Pocahontas, Believe You Can defeated horses that had won or would go on to win a total of two graded stakes and one ungraded stake and fillies that had placed in or would go on to place in three graded stakes and three ungraded stakes races altogether.

Believe You Can made her sophomore debut at the Fair Grounds in the Silverbulletday Stakes in late January, in which she set a steady pace from start to finish to capture the mile and seventy yards race by 1 ½ lengths. The filly who finished second to her in the Silverbulletday, Summer Applause, turned the tables on her next out in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (GIII) over the same track, however. In the Rachel Alexandra, Believe You Can settled in third rather than going to lead and raced along the inside before being maneuvered to the outside and faltering to fourth as the six-horse field bounded across the finish line.

The Larry Jones trainee rebounded next out, however, leading most of the way in the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) over a small field to defeat her apparent rival Summer Applause by a head in a valiant effort to hold the other filly off while drifting out.

Despite the fact that Summer Applause has only managed to conquer Believe You Can once, many feel that she is the better filly. Though I am part of that group, I believe that Believe You Can is a gritty, talented filly with the pedigree to allow her to perform well in the Oaks, despite the fact that her only start over the Churchill Downs surface was not spectacular.

Obviously, Proud Citizen has already sired a Kentucky Oaks winner – and for the same connections at that. However, his success with three-year-olds does not stop there. He is the sire of two of the leading Kentucky Derby contenders for this year: the multiple graded stakes-placed Mark Valeski and the graded stakes-winning Went the Day Well. Proud Citizen, who is a grandson of the influential sire, sire of sires, and broodmare sire Gone West, is a direct descendant of the great mare Natalma and when bred to Believe You Can’s dam, El Fasto, the two form two crosses of Buckpasser, Natalma, Nearctic, and Tom Fool. El Fasto, a daughter of the significant sire El Prado, is a half-sister to the multiple graded stakes-winning Classic Elegance. She exhibits several crosses of Blue Larkspur, Mahmoud, Pharos, and Turn-To, some of the most influential sires found in the pedigrees of Thoroughbreds.

Believe You Can will have to run the race of her life in the Kentucky Oaks, but she has previously shown that she will lay it all on the line to get her nose in front. Her pedigree, though impressive, may not be quite as dazzling as other fillies pointing for the Run for the Lilies and her racing performances may not be as spectacular, but she is a hard-knocking filly running for connections with past successes in the Derby’s sister. She is certainly a justifiable contender for the Kentucky Oaks.

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