Filly/Mare Sprint: Tamarind Hall

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After a tough winter at Penn National, Tamarind Hall took her place in trainer Jeremiah Englehart’s barn at Finger Lakes. And became the running joke.

“She doesn’t look like your other horses,” Englehart’s railbird friends would say as the 4-year-old filly went to the track. “She’s skinny. She’s not carrying any weight. Doesn’t she eat? Don’t you feed her?”

Things got so bad Englehart shipped her to Aqueduct and ran her for a $15,000 claiming tag – “just to get a win.” She obliged, didn’t get claimed, put Penn in her rearview mirror, started eating, defeated Finger Lakes sprint ace Lisa’s Booby Trap in June. And silenced the peanut gallery for good with a Grade III stakes score in Belmont’s Bed O Roses July 3. Eklektikos Stable’s daughter of Graeme Hall goes after Grade I glory as part of a standout field in today’s Ballerina.

“When I got her back to Finger Lakes this spring she really blossomed,” said Englehart, son of Finger Lakes legend Chris Englehart. “She didn’t have a great winter, she wasn’t eating great, she wasn’t happy at Penn. I don’t think she liked the surface, it was all her mental state. She had a horrible winter. I had a horrible winter.”

The Florida-bred looked happy Thursday, jogging to the gate for a stand-in and galloping 1 1/4 miles for exercise rider Elizabeth Dobles. Fit, robust, ready, she is the 6-1 fourth choice behind divisional standouts Hilda’s Passion, Sassy Image and Tar Heel Mom today. Englehart brought her to Saratoga early in hopes of settling some recent pre-race nerves – hers and his.

“She’s very ladylike, professional, but she gets a little fired up in the paddock sometimes,” said Englehart. “I school her before races and saddle her on the walk and she’s been fine. I normally would ship the same day to run here and I was real nervous about changing things this time, but I think it’s the right move. She’s been here since Monday.”

An assistant for his father, Mike Hushion and Ken McPeek over the years, Englehart also spent a summer working on the starting gate in Saratoga. He first took out a license in 2003, but really struck out on his own in 2007 – when his starts jumped to 236 from 58 the year before. He won his first stakes that year and is batting 20 percent with 40 winners this year. The Bed O Roses was his first graded stakes victory.

He trains 40 horses at Finger Lakes, but just one as good as Tamarind Hall – a private purchase out of Woodbine late last year for owner Mark Vondrasek.

“Being a little bit of an underdog takes a lot of the pressure away, but I get real nervous before races,” he said. “Last year you wouldn’t have said I’d be bringing a horse in for the Ballerina, I’m 1-9 to sweat more than Todd Pletcher. I ran a horse here the other day and I looked like I just got done running 6 miles and I don’t run.”

Englehart should relax and let his filly do the sweating.

Tamarind Hall has won four of her last five and defeated Ballerina favorite Hilda’s Passion (from Pletcher’s barn) in the Bed O Roses. The trainer liked the filly’s upside when he made the purchase and had a soft spot for liver chestnut Graeme Hall fillies after training $300,000 earner Graeme Six.

“I mainly bought her for the dirt,” he said. “She’s won six of her 10 starts on dirt and when I first got her, the riders who got on her said she was really nice. She was outworking some of my dad’s better horses.”

She won her first try for Englehart last November, then weathered the storm with three defeats at Penn before the Aqueduct start. Risked for $15,000, she went off the 4-5 favorite and won easily. She answered that with an optional-claiming score at Penn, suffered a narrow loss to the Chris Englehart-trained E Z Passer at Finger Lakes, then dominated a 6-furlong allowance at Finger Lakes. That race, and the various speed figures hollered to him afterward, convinced Englehart to head for Belmont Park and the Bed O Roses. He saw Hilda’s Passion in the assembly barn, nearly went back home, gulped and saddled his filly anyway – and got an unlikely win at 16-1.

“I didn’t sweat running her for 15 a whole lot when I did it, but if I had a crystal ball and could see the future it would have been a lot different,” he said. “I’d be talking to myself now if I lost her and she went on to do what she’s done.”

Englehart taps David Cohen for the Ballerina assignment and hopes to see Tamarind Hall sit between the speedsters and the closers in the 7-furlong race.

“I think you’ll see Hilda’s Passion and Tar Heel Mom 1-2 going down the backside and I’m going to try to lay right behind them and pick my time to try to get them,” the trainer said. “I know there are some awfully nice fillies in there, I know it’s a Grade I and I know it’s Saratoga.”

And Tamarind Hall knows it’s a long way from Penn National.