Fillies dazzle on Oaks Day undercard

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Walking out of the tunnel for the Grade 1 La Troienne Stakes on the Longines Kentucky Oaks undercard Friday at Churchill Downs, clouds were few and far between as the sun shone very brightly on the home of the twin spires. The temperature was near perfect; about 75 degrees with a slight breeze. With the way the media crammed into the winner’s circle area before the day’s first stakes event, one could tell it was going to be quite the squeeze there at approximately 6:34 p.m. Saturday.

As for the paid customers, the stands certainly looked full from the track approaching post time for the La Troienne, the sixth of 13 races on the Oaks card. It was a seemingly typical Oaks crowd, filled with floppy hats and fascinators, sear sucker suits and bowties, floral patterned sundresses and a wide array of bright colors, pink the most prominently displayed.

But by the time the tens of thousands of spectators were on their feet to cheer the La Troienne field home, the race was already over, as Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ Curalina opened up a 1 1/2-length lead in the stretch, widening with each stride as she crossed the wire ahead by 7 1/2 lengths.

Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez was patient on Curalina in second early, a length behind the front-running Angela Renee through the race’s opening 6 furlongs. Once Velazquez asked Curalina to go entering the stretch, the Todd Pletcher-trainee waved goodbye to Angela Renee, who wound up fourth behind longshot runner-up Engaginglee and odds-on favorite Sheer Drama.

Curalina’s performance was exactly what Eclipse Thoroughbreds’ President Aron Wellman was looking for to start her 4-year-old campaign. Wellman opted out of sending the Curlin filly to Keeneland, citing she wasn’t quite ready to run again in April.

“We could have run in the Doubledogdare, but she was probably a work or two short for that,” Wellman said. “And I’m A Chatterbox was there – not that we fear her – but to run in a Grade 3 for $100,000 when we could have three more weeks, two good works and run in a Grade 1 for $300,000? I think even Todd and I could figure that one out. We’re really happy that it worked out well today.”

The La Troienne was the first start for Curalina since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff last fall at Keeneland, and Wellman said the six months of rest was much needed.

“After the Breeders’ Cup she had a really time trying to keep her weight and she got a little on the small side,” Wellman said. “She just needed a little time to grow up and recharge her batteries.”

Prior to her Breeders’ Cup performance, Curalina won the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes at Belmont and placed in three additional Grade 1 events as a 3-year-old. Wellman admitted he was a little salty that his filly was not nominated for an Eclipse Award after her impressive 2015 campaign.

“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t disappointed with the lack of respect she was shown last year at the Eclipse Awards for champion 3-year-old filly,” Wellman said. “I know I’m extremely biased, but if you compare her credentials to the three fillies that were nominated, I think she was right there. So we’ve entered this year with a bit of a chip on our shoulder.”

Wellman said the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, part of the impressive Belmont Stakes Day card at Belmont Park June 11, would be the goal for the 4-year-old filly’s next start.

Similar to Curalina’s La Troienne triumph, Three Chimneys Farm’s Carina Mia sat off the early pace before commanding the lead in the stretch, clearing the finish line ahead 6 lengths in the Grade 2 Eight Belles Stakes.

Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott and ridden by Julien Leparoux, Carina Mia maintained a perfect 2-for-2 record at Churchill after winning the Grade 2 Golden Rod as a 2-year-old last fall.

For Goncalo Borges Torrealba, majority owner of Three Chimneys, the victory came as a relief.

“She’s named after my wife, who’s here, so I was under a little pressure,” Torrealba said. “But luckily she delivered, so we’re very happy.”

Torrealba seemed happy to take a victory in the Eight Belles as a consolation for Carina Mia failing to qualify for the Kentucky Oaks.

“We tried to get her in the Oaks but she didn’t have the points,” Torrealba said. “But we are very pleased with her today and will point to the Acorn (June 11 at Belmont) next.”