Alabama preview: Bama Babes

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Larry Jones circled the stakes barn early Friday morning and fumbled with his cell phone like a rookie fielding his first NFL punt.

“Larry, you need a hand with that?” an onlooker asked.

“I’m trying to type this guy’s name in here,” Jones replied. “I need his number, and it’s a little hard to do with one hand.”

Adding his right hand to the mix would have made things a lot easier, but when it’s engaged walking the Kentucky Oaks winner, you’ve got to do things on the fly. Proud Spell was a willing dance partner for Jones, parading around the walking ring, posing for pictures and not turning a hair as she cooled down from her final preparations for today’s 128th running of the Grade I Alabama. Proud Spell could meet a familiar foe in Music Note in the $600,000 stakes, with the tilt going a long way to deciding who is the best 3-year-old filly in the country.

Walking, vanning and bathing his own horses is nothing knew for Jones. More hands-on than Bob Vila, the 51-year-old Kentucky native once again shows up at Saratoga with a major contender in a Grade I Stakes.

Proud Spell came to national prominence last September when she won the Grade II Matron at Belmont Park by 4 1/4 lengths for owner/breeder Brereton Jones. Larry Jones saddled the daughter of Proud Citizen for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Proud Spell closed to finish second behind champion Indian Blessing.

He gave her the rest of the season off and she returned Feb. 9, again chasing Indian Blessing in the Grade III Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds. Proud Spell finally got the better of the champion in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks March 8. Regular jockey Gabriel Saez put his filly into the race immediately and tracked Indian Blessing from close range before drawing off to a 2 1/4-length win, stamping Proud Spell as the early season divisional leader amongst her peers.

After finishing third at Keeneland in the Grade I Ashland Stakes (over a Polytrack surface she didn’t handle) Proud Spell ventured to Churchill Downs for the Grade I Kentucky Oaks. She glided over a sloppy track and scored a 5-length win to validate her standing as the best 3-year-old filly in the country.

Until the Mother Goose came along. Proud Spell went to post at Belmont June 28 the 1-2 favorite, a virtual Grade I cinch. Then the gates opened. Proud Spell went to her knees at the start but recovered to race inside for the first 6 furlongs. Turning for home she was bottled up along the inside and shuffled back to last. Crying out for racing room she darted to the outside, then back to the rail, but Music Note – in her first stakes effort – had gotten the jump and coasted to a 3 1/2-length victory. Proud Spell finished a clear second but was disqualified for stretch interference and placed third.

Jones left the Mother Goose unsettled and disappointed, but was happy his filly returned in one piece after an eventful trip. He sent Proud Spell to the Grade II Delaware Oaks on two weeks rest and she earned a hard-fought, albeit tougher-than expected, victory. Jones second-guessed himself a bit during the race.

“At the quarter-pole I got to thinking I ran her back a little too soon and that my other filly (Maren’s Meadow) was going to win. But she really dug down and pulled it out – her class and her heart really carried her through that day,” Jones said. “Now, looking back at it, I think it was a good thing because that was the first time that we really had to ask her since the the Fair Grounds Oaks when she beat Indian Blessing.”

Godolphin’s Music Note is still being considered for a possible start in the Travers against colts next Saturday, but Jones is hoping to meet the star filly in the Alabama to decide once and for all who is deserving of divisional honors.

“Ideally I’d like to see a dry track and have both fillies get a trouble-free trip so we can settle it on the track where it’s supposed to be settled. Hopefully Music Note runs but our filly is coming into the race great, she’s bounced out of the Delaware race in good fashion, and we’re ready to go tomorrow,” Jones said. “We had a troubled trip at Belmont and we did what we had to do in the Delaware Oaks. That race was a perfect spot to get us to tomorrow.”

Since that race, Proud Spell shows a pair of 5-furlong breezes at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, one over the main track there and one over the Tapeta surface. While Proud Spell struggled to get over Keeneland’s Polytrack in the Ashland Jones has no reservations about training his filly over a synthetic surface.

“The horses tend to come off that and run better. We keep her on the dirt there a lot, but I sure do like to go into a big race off that kind of work (on the synthetic surface),” Jones said. “It gives them more fitness but the big thing is they don’t come back body sore. They just come out of it so darn good and she’s just springing over the track here in her two gallops.”

Proud Spell has yet to try the classic 10-furlong distance but has shown remarkable versatility in her 10-race career. She broke her maiden at 5 furlongs and won the Oaks going away at 9 furlongs. Jones enters today’s test with no reservations about the demanding mile and a quarter.

“She’s a filly you can place anywhere in her races and she doesn’t need to bring her track with her, as long as it’s not synthetic. She’s very versatile. She broke her maiden going 5 furlongs in 57 and change but I don’t see a mile and a quarter being an issue,” Jones said. “(Sire) Proud Citizen had no trouble with it and with (dam’s sire) Langfuhr on the bottom we should be fine. She’s shown speed or she can lay off. At the Fair Grounds we had to go get Indian Blessing and that was fine. If she needs to sit back and make a run that’s fine too.”

Music Note should benefit the most going two turns and 1 1/4 miles in the Alabama. The late-developing daughter of A.P. Indy stormed through a pair of Grade I stakes at Belmont, taking the Mother Goose over Proud Spell then toying with four rivals, including stablemate Little Belle, in the 10-furlong Coaching Club America Oaks, which she won by a widening 11 lengths.

The effort prompted Godolphin’s Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, racing manager Simon Crisford and trainer Saeed bin Suroor to consider the filly for Travers Aug. 23. As of Friday morning, Godolphin’s U.S. assistant Rick Mettee was still awaiting word on a final decision.

“They still want to weigh everything over the next day or so and I doubt we’ll have a decision until Saturday morning. I think I’ll be getting a call this time tomorrow,” Mettee said. “It comes down to the field size of the Travers, weather, things like that. They are aware of the history of fillies in the Travers as well. I think the last time it’s even been tried was Davona Dale in 1979. It’s one thing if you hook a six or seven horse field but they are looking at a big field so we’ll have to see.”

Music Note broke her maiden last fall at Aqueduct when trained by Tom Albertrani for Godolphin’s sister operation Darley Stable. She carried the Godolphin colors for her first start of 2008, an entry-level allowance at Belmont May 22, and drew off to a 7-length win. The Mother Goose ensued, as did a rise to the top of her division. While Proud Spell’s troubled trip got the majority of the press, Music Note didn’t encounter calm waters either. She threw a shoe and stumbled early in the Mother Goose but still drew off for an easy win. Though Coaching Club looked a formality on paper it wasn’t always in the plans.

“We weren’t sure about it, but I called and told Saeed we should probably run the filly because it was a short field and she was just tearing down the barn.” Mettee said. “She’s really progressed this year and running long has helped a lot.”

Those hoping for a battle of the sexes in the Travers can thank Godolphin’s Little Belle, who will run in the Alabama regardless of what her stablemate does. Another daughter of A.P. Indy, she defeated Proud Spell in the Ashland (when trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Darley), chased that rival home as runner-up Kentucky Oaks while wearing Godolphin blue for the first time, and finished second to Music Note in the Coaching Club. Mettee looks forward to a big improvement Saturday, but has one eye towards Mother Nature, who’s made her presence felt at the Spa all summer long.

“Little Belle, we knew she’d be a little short in the Coaching Club but she has been doing really well and has had a really good month since that race. We expect her to go forward, if that’s going to be enough to beat Proud Spell, who is obviously a faster filly at 9 furlongs or less than her, I don’t know,” Mettee said. “She’s kind of a hard-running filly, so I would think she’ll get the mile and a quarter. How the slop would play to her I don’t know. She won once over it at Aqueduct but was beaten 5 lengths by Proud Spell in the Kentucky Oaks. There’s really nothing we can do at this point with the weather.”

Mettee knows Godolphin is in a good spot regardless if who is in the starting gate for the Alabama.

“I think if we didn’t have Little Belle in the barn you probably wouldn’t have heard anything about running in the Travers. It really comes down to having two really good fillies who are both proven at a mile and a quarter. They are just two really quality fillies,” Mettee said. “If Music Note runs in the Alabama she’s coming in great from the Coaching Club and Little Belle is coming up to a big race as well.”

Sweet Vendetta has rapidly climbed up the class ladder since Gary Contessa added blinkers in February for her maiden win, a 7-lengths score over state-breds on the inner dirt at Aqueduct.

The daughter of Stephen Got Even closed from eighth and drew off that day, then left state-breds company to run a credible second to Little Belle in the Busher.

A 4-length win in the Andover Way over a sloppy track prompted Contessa to leave the comforts of the Big A and shoot for the Grade II Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico May 16. Catching a sloppy track once again, Sweet Vendetta sat well off the pace and rallied clear in the stretch for a 1 1/2-length score. WinStar Farm purchased Sweet Vendetta from Team Penney Racing and co-breeder David Cassidy after the race and Ramon Dominguez, aboard for the maiden score, climbs back aboard on Saturday.

Bobby Frankel looks to collect some elusive black-type for Skylighter, a Stonerside Stable homebred who enters off two straight route wins at Belmont.

The daughter of Sky Mesa needed six starts to break her maiden, finally breaking through by a neck May 11, but came right back to defeat winners July 10 with a pace-pressing 1 3/4-length score. Skylighter is undefeated in two starts going long on the main track, and Edgar Prado rides for the first time.

Zayat Stable purchased Mushka for $1.6 million at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Selected Sale and after winning the Grade II Demoiselle Stakes last November she looked to be an exciting player in the 3-year-old filly division for Bill Mott. But the daughter of Empire Maker didn’t return to the races until a 9-furlong optional claimer here July 25, when she flattened out in the lane and finished a disappointing third as the 6-5 favorite.

She figures to be tighter for the biggest test of her young career today; John Velazquez, aboard for her last two outings, has the call.