Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Oaks Contender: Hard Not to Like

Despite never having run on dirt, Hard Not to Like will make her main track debut among the most gifted sophomore fillies on the continent as she contests in the Kentucky Oaks (GI). Though she’ll have three wins to her credit as she goes to post, she will have no graded stakes victories under her belt – just good performances in them. Despite the fact that she may be bestowed with high odds, she certainly has a good chance to outrun those odds.

The graceful, charcoal gray filly is a result of a careful mating planned by owner and breeder Garland Williamson of Hillbrook Farms, who retains ownership of Hard Not to Like’s dam, Like a Gem – a track record setter at ten furlongs and a multiple black-type winner. An earner of over half-a-million dollars, the Ontario-bred mare is out of the same dam as the multiple graded stakes-placed Cool Gator and the stakes-winning Win and Reign. A daughter of the grade one-winning Tactical Cat, Like a Gem provides Hard Not to Like with the great Storm Cat as her grandsire. Tactical Cat – too young to make much of an impact as a broodmare sire – is a son of the damsire of such horses as the grade one winners Bodemeister, Dialed In, Folklore, Sky Mesa, Speightstown, and Sidney’s Candy. Like a Gem’s own broodmare sire is champion sprinter Rubiano, damsire of the grade one winner Take Charge Lady, as well as the graded stakes victors Ecclesiastic, Grazen, Neko Bay, Teammate, and War Front.

Interestingly, Hard Not to Like comes from the same dam line as fellow Kentucky Oaks contender Summer Applause, as Hard Not to Like’s seventh dam is the Reine De Course mare Iribelle, who happens to be Summer Applause’s fifth dam. This forms the same line of beautifully-bred E.P. Taylor mares, as Iribelle – a stakes-placed runner – was the dam of the Canadian Horse of the Year, as well as Victoriana – Summer Applause’s fifth dam – and the talented multiple stakes-winning Britannia – Hard Not to Like’s sixth dam.

The dam of Hard Not to Like is the flourishing young sire Hard Spun. A grade one winner who finished second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby (GI), Hard Spun is a son of the influential sire Danzig. Other sons of the deceased son of Northern Dancer that have gone on to success at stud include the champion racehorse and one of the leading international sires, Danehill, as well as the sire of champions, Dayjur. From a strong dam line that included the dam of the champion Little Current , Hard Spun has quickly become a successful stud, siring such horses as Saturday's Derby Trial Stakes (GIII)-winning Hierro, the group stakes-winning Red Duke, the multiple stakes-winning and graded stakes-placed Glinda the Good, and the stakes-winning runners Hardened Wildcat, Midnight Transfer, and Sweet Seventeen. Hard Not to Like is currently his leading earner.

Between Hard Spun and Like a Gem, Hard Not to Like features 3 X 5 inbreeding to the influential Northern Dancer. Inbreeding to this prominent son of Nearctic has appeared in the pedigrees of several champions, including Big Brown, Orfevre, Rachel Alexandra, and Summer Bird.

The pedigree of Hard Not to Like implies that the filly can run on any surface and by the end of the Kentucky Oaks, she will have done so. However, she has not yet contested over dirt – the surface over which the Oaks is run. All of her races have come on the turf and synthetic.

Hard Not to Like made her first start in a six-furlong maiden special weight over the turf course at Woodbine in Canada, sitting in a mid-pack position prior to closing to prevail by a half-length in an impressive final time of 1:09.81. She scored another win a month later, competing in a one-mile allowance over Woodbine’s turf oval. Racing mid-pack yet again, the dark gray filly made a wide move around the final turn before striking to lead and never looking back as she coasted to a 1 ¼-length victory. Yet again, the daughter of Hard Spun posted another remarkable final time: 1:35.10 for one mile.

Taking a step up in class, Hard Not to Like loaded into the gate amongst a deep field of juvenile fillies. Over the same turf course on which all of her starts had come, the Gail Cox trainee broke from the starting gate in the Natalma Stakes (GIII) – named after E.P. Taylor’s great dam of Northern Dancer. Finding a position far off the pace, Hard Not to Like was forced to maneuver traffic and swing extremely wide around the far turn. By the time she had found enough real estate to commence her move, she seemed to have lost too much momentum and despite making a decent rally, Hard Not to Like had to settle for fifth. While finishing behind the winners of a combined five future graded stakes or ungraded stakes races, Hard Not to Like defeated runners that had placed or would eventually place in a total of six stakes races.

Making her fourth consecutive start over Woodbine’s grass course, Hard Not to Like performed next in the Cup and Saucer Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth. The daughter of Hard Spun displayed a new dimension, being forwardly placed before taking command of the lead around the final curve. She had dig in to overthrow two other grays in the stretch, but once she did, she coasted to a 4 ¾-length victory over Woodbine’s soft turf. Remarkably, Hard Not to Like was the only filly in the field.

Hard Not to Like proceeded to enter the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (GII) at Churchill Downs, facing the past or future winners of seven group or graded stakes altogether. Racing widest of all, Hard Not to Like ran mid-pack, though a bit closer to the lead than she had been in her first three starts. Due to her wide trip, the gray filly had no choice but to race near the center of the track as the field swung into the homestretch. She rallied, but it was only enough to secure a fifth-place finish, beaten just three lengths.

The Ontario-bred filly did not start again for five months, making her sophomore debut in the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (GI) at Keeneland – a race full of history. It was her first start in a race that was not contested on a turf course, but it was on the similar surface Polytrack. It was also her first start in a grade one race, which is, of course, the highest level of racing. The significant race was a tall task for a return to the races, but if there was even the slightest hope of getting Hard Not to Like to the Kentucky Oaks, the race would set her up well should she run a good race. With Robby Albarado aboard for the first time, Hard Not to Like was forwardly placed as Karlovy Vary set the pace. Despite finding room around the final turn and making an impressive rally, she could not best Karlovy Vary and finished second by ¾ of a length.

Hard Not to Like’s remarkable return to the races sent her on the road to the Kentucky Oaks, where she will face the toughest field of her life. Yet, if Hard Not to Like could run that well in such a tough race off a five-month layoff, one can only imagine how much she has matured. Already a gifted filly, Hard Not to Like seems to be an improving filly.

Many find it worrisome that she has not started over dirt before, but the filly has been training well over the dirt surface at Palm Meadows Training Center despite posting sluggish times. However, trainer Gail Cox has expressed confidence in the filly. In fact, he told the Daily Racing Form, “We sort of think she’ll handle any surface.”

This still may not convince handicappers, but it must be noted that the filly’s sire was very successful on both dirt and synthetic, winning graded stakes races on both surfaces. He was also effective over Churchill Downs’ main track, running a spectacular second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Though Hard Not to Like’s dam, Like a Gem, found her greatest success on the turf and synthetic, she won twice over conventional dirt. It also must be taken into consideration that Hard Not to Like galloped over the Churchill Downs’ dirt surface in preparation for the Breeders’ Cup last fall.

With just one start under her belt this year and no starts on dirt, Hard Not to Like will likely go off at double-digit odds. Perhaps she’ll be a good play for bettors, but most of all, it would no surprise to me to see Hard Not to Like perform very well in the Kentucky Oaks. A classy, improving filly with a pedigree interwoven with names of imperial Thoroughbreds, Hard Not to Like will be a significant presence on Oaks Day.

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