Freak Show: Questing dazzles in Alabama

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Irad Ortiz looked up, paused and repeated the question. “What do I think?” Then the 20-year-old jockey smiled, eyes widening.

“She is a freak is what I think,” he said. “I never ride one horse like that, she run and run and run and run and keep going.”

Ortiz, in his broken but poignant English, summed up the 132nd Alabama Stakes, one of two Grade 1 stakes on Saturday’s card.

Coming off a front-running win in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks a month ago, Godolphin’s Questing broke sharply, shrugged off a bump with In Lingerie, and outgunned her six rivals for the lead. Questing led by a clear length over Zo Impressive, Grace Hall and In Lingerie who made deliberate moves to stalk the second-choice. Longshots Uptown Bertie, Via Villaggio and Sea Island shuffled into each other going into the first turn, forcing the trio to the back of the seven-horse field.

After a quarter mile in 22.84 seconds, Questing led Grace Hall, Zo Impressive and In Lingerie who put 5 quick lengths on the rest of the field. Questing slowed it down slightly, posting a half in 46.01. Midway on the turn, after three-quarters in 1:09.74, Questing had derailed Zo Impressive and Grace Hall who were in full retreat as In Lingerie tried to claw into the margin. Via Villaggio closed mildly from the back while the others had completely tailed off.

Nearing the quarter pole, Ortiz sat motionless, curled behind Questing’s mane like he had a good book and a blanket while the rest of the jockeys had long passed panic. Questing straightened into the stretch with a commanding lead, blowing past the eighth pole in control. Ortiz opted for his whip as he did in the CCA Oaks, smacking Questing right-handed which she obviously abhorred, moving into the whip and swishing her tail at the insult. Ortiz did it again and again a flash of the tail and a jink back to her left lead. Running in snatches, she continued to draw off, cruising past the wire 9 lengths clear of In Lingerie who had 8 lengths on Via Villaggio. The seven-horse field was stretched out like pigeons on a barn rooftop, nearly 30 lengths separating the leader and the laggard. Mother Goose winner Zo Impressive finished fourth, pulling up with a reported lateral condylar fracture which was deemed career threatening but not life threatening.

Questing finished 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.29, the fastest running of the Alabama since Go For Wand in 1990.

Moments after watching the performance at the clubhouse big screen, McLaughlin walked to the winner’s circle, zoning out and muttering superlatives as he does after winning big races.

“Wow. This is a good one. She just kept going. What a filly. What a filly. Wow. Unbelievable.”

Questing improved her record to four wins from nine starts while winning her third consecutive start on the dirt. Bred by Darley in Britain, she began her career with a win over good turf at Newbury before finishing third and second in Grade 3 stakes while trained by John Gosden. Shipped to the Breeders’ Cup, the daughter of Hard Spun finished fifth in the Juvenile Fillies, her dirt debut. Transferred to McLaughlin, she made two uninspiring starts on the turf, burning money both times and was riding the last-chance caboose when McLaughlin tried the dirt again.

Now, she’s up front in the locomotive – blowing the whistle.

Unbeaten in three starts since the move, Questing all but clinched 3-year-old filly honors with her Saratoga spree. Two Grade 1 stakes by a combined margin of 13 1/4 lengths, leaving Grade 1 winners Zo Impressive and Grace Hall in her wake, puts her firmly in charge.

McLaughlin credits his assistant/brother Neal and his team for a big part of the success. Questing returned from Palm Meadows in March, spent a few weeks with Kiaran at Belmont, before arriving at Darley’s Greentree estate in Saratoga April 15. The only times she’s left were for two trips to Belmont (fifth on the turf, breakout win on dirt) and for two walks to the paddock for Grade 1 stakes at Saratoga.

“It’s great for this filly, just the environment, it’s just beautiful, a slice of heaven,” McLaughlin said. “It’s all the little tiny things that you don’t think about, blacksmith, Greentree, grazing twice a day, your help doing a great job.”

Questing has thrived in the bucolic atmosphere; galloping the right way and the wrong way on the training track, relaxing in a round pen, grazing twice a day. Watching her train Thursday morning, she didn’t stand out nor did she hide. She was just a horse handling her training, going about her business.

“She’s just a little filly, she trains great, but like a normal horse, to see her run like that, today was incredible, she was going too fast but she just kept going. She loves the dirt, obviously, and she doesn’t like the stick,” McLaughlin said. “I was a little nervous, 22 and 4, I told my daughter we needed to slow it down a little and got a 46. Then 9 and change, but I was never that worried because she looked like she was doing it the right way, the other ones were struggling behind her.”

Questing has perfected her free-running style which seems too fast too early, but empties her rivals with exacting ease. Right about the time she should be feeling the pinch, she kicks and the rest look for the exit ramp.

After the Alabama, conservative horsemen and fans uttered the unfathomable, “That would have won the Travers.”

The effort forced McLaughlin to scour his memory for a comparable performance.

“That was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever had as a trainer,” McLaughlin said. “I want to say it’s the second most impressive. Key of Luck, in the 1995 Duty Free in Dubai, he won by 20 lengths, and ran a tick faster, a tenth of a second faster than Cigar did 30 minutes later over the same trip, course, everything. This was wow.”


***From the Aug. 19 edition of The Saratoga Special. See more in our Digital Editions section.