Larry Jones began murmuring to Gabriel Saez as the field turned down the backside in the Alabama Saturday. Like a father spelling words to himself as his son spells them on stage in a spelling bee, the trainer half pleaded, half instructed his jockey.
Then on the turn, Saez and Proud Spell began to range up on Little Belle, while Music Note began to range up on Proud Spell.
It was no longer a spelling bee.
“Here she comes, Gabe. Go. Here she comes, Gabe. Go. Here she comes.”
For a moment it looked like Music Note was going to blow past Proud Spell.
For a moment.
“Get her out against him, get out against him, come on girl, get out against him. Come on Gabriel. Get out against him.”
Fade to screams, hugs, high fives and sheer bedlam.
Proud Spell avenged a tough loss to Music Note in the Mother Goose by upsetting her by a measured head in the Grade I Alabama.
A mile and a quarter of tactics and talent saw the nod going to the small but mighty Proud Spell. Owned and bred by Brereton Jones, Proud Spell won her second Grade I stakes of the year and improved her career mark to seven wins from 11 starts, with nearly $2 million in earnings.
“You don’t want to eyeball (her),” Larry Jones said on his way to the winner’s circle. “If that doesn’t clinch an Eclipse Award I don’t know what does. It was a good track, a fair track. Everybody had their shot, they got eyeball-to-eyeball and the best horse won. She’s tough. You don’t out-gut her.”
The Alabama pitted the once-beaten Music Note against the rugged Proud Spell. Tossed in for good measure was Little Belle, a Godolphin barnmate of Music Note’s and the confirmed pacesetter. Proud Spell and Music Note had met once. In the star-crossed Mother Goose, Music Note prevailed while Proud Spell found trouble from break to finish.
The daughter of Proud Citizen stumbled badly at the start, then fought for position in the four-horse field, eventually finishing second and being moved down by the stewards for bothering the third horse Never Retreat. It was a debacle for the Kentucky Oaks winner. Her trainer dealt with some lacerations she suffered in the race and wheeled her back in the Grade II Delaware Oaks two weeks later.
“At the quarter-pole, I really thought I had run her back too quick because I could see her struggling. From a training standpoint, after we had won and collected the money and saw the way she came back I was very glad that is what I did,” Jones said. “Running her back that quick, the Delaware Oaks emptied her. She was a tired puppy, but it was a good tired. She wasn’t sore anywhere, she was just exhausted, plus it gave us another week for the Alabama. We turned her out in the little paddocks, she’d rear, buck and play, but wouldn’t run nowhere. You could tell she wanted to feel good, it was a good tired. Then she just come back dynamite.”
A week after Proud Spell eked out a victory in the Delaware Oaks, Music Note torched Little Belle and three others in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks.
The barnmates aimed at the Alabama. Godolphin hinted at running Music Note in the Travers but opted to take on Proud Spell. Jones wasn’t about to back down.
“There was enough money today – if you missed this one, you’re dodging somebody. That’s what everybody thought I was doing by missing the Coaching Club Oaks, but 200,000 more dollars in my back yard, I lead her over. That didn’t take a lot of brains,” Jones said of choosing the Oaks (run at his home track, Delaware Park) as a prep for the Alabama. “Hopefully we’ve shown once again that she really is the best 3-year-old filly in the country. It’s not like we’re carrying 117 and she was packing 121 or anything like that. Everything was even, equal weights, it wasn’t a muddy track and at an actual racehorse distance.”
Proud Spell covered the 10-furlongs in 2:04.08.
Breaking from the rail, Proud Spell allowed Little Belle to take the lead and found a cozy spot in second. Saez wasn’t about to relive the trouble he found in the Mother Goose and moved her away from the rail, just off the right flank of Little Belle. The leader posted a 24.97 opening quarter, and a half mile in 50.22 seconds. The Ashland winner went three-quarters in 1:14.70 as Proud Spell locked and loaded for Music Note, who had moved into her sight range under Javier Castellano. Turning for home, Proud Spell rolled past Little Belle and was instantly engaged by Music Note. Saez, as if listening to Jones, knew to keep Proud Spell’s head in front of Music Note. Saez hit her left-handed, then switched to his right hand, all the while making sure Proud Spell could see who was coming. Once staunched, Music Note stayed put and Proud Spell stayed resolute. She won by a head in an epic renewal of the Alabama.
“I had it played out that way, sure. I said, ‘If I was training the other two, I’d have to put Little Belle out there and see what happens,’ ” Jones said. “We’re proud of her, we’re proud of Gabriel. Every time I throw him into a crunch situation he pulls it off – this kid’s good.”
Proud Spell made her debut last July under Jones’ number-one rider Saez. He’s been aboard her in every start; she’s never been off the board in 11 tries.
“It’s real exciting. Absolutely awesome. I felt Music Note coming so I had to ride harder than I wanted to but I didn’t want her to get to my filly. She was coming. I had to keep an eye on her,” Saez said. “Larry has given me the best opportunity of my life. He trusts me. To win for him is very, very special. He told me to try to be in front of Music Note so that’s where I put my filly. The last time at Belmont I got in a little bit of trouble. I could not get out so today I tried to keep clear on my filly. She has a lot of heart. At the eighth-pole, she dug in again. That’s a good feeling.”
Entering the Alabama, Proud Spell had earned more than the other four starters combined; physically, they dwarfed her. She’s little – plain and simple. Brereton Jones couldn’t help but think about that in the paddock.
“She’s half as big as the other filly, if you look at every other filly in the race, she’s half as big,” he said. “Years ago, I bought a son of Northern Dancer from Europe. He was quite small and light and he didn’t travel very well. A very wealthy lady from New York was interested in buying a share in him and she came to the farm to look at him. She turned her nose up and said, ‘Oh, no, he’s much too small, I wouldn’t be interested in him.’ The groom was an elderly man and it offended him. He looked her straight in the eye and he said, ‘Hell, maam, there ain’t nothing to size – if there was elephants would be outrunning rabbits.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
Proud Spell wouldn’t let him forget.