Todd Pletcher and his team combed the barns at Keeneland before the 2019 September yearling sale, scouting prospects to load his soon-to-be Hall of Fame operation and found several they felt could fit right in.
Some even stood out, including a scopey bay daughter of Curlin out of a Grade 1-winning mare Pletcher trained. Cataloged as Hip 368 and slated to sell toward the end of the second session, the filly stood out and Pletcher knew he’d need a collective effort from his clients to add her to the roster.
“I loved the filly at the sale,” Pletcher said. “I was having trouble – it’s a lot easier to get someone on a colt than a filly sometimes, even with one that has as great a pedigree as she does. And I kept trying different owners, (telling them), ‘This filly is going to be expensive, but I really would like to try and buy her.”
Pletcher was able to assemble a group and they locked onto the filly out of Dreaming of Julia consigned by Denali Stud, agent for Stonestreet Bred and Raised.
The late Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, a longtime player at the top of the boutique yearling markets around the world, and his team from Kentucky-based Shadwell Stable led by Rick Nichols also liked the filly.
“The first thing we saw going through the catalog was her pedigree,” Nichols said. “You don’t just see too many fillies end up in a sale with that kind of pedigree because she was an obvious choice to go look at. And, of course, we did and we loved her physically.
“When I took Sheikh Hamdan to see her – and, by the way, this was his last year to purchase yearlings himself at Keeneland. We bought a few last year, but this was the last time he was there. He loved her. And I told him, ‘I’m going to show you this filly and you’re going to like her, but it wouldn’t surprise if me if they didn’t pull her out of the sale before the ring.’ ”
Shadwell frequently buys what it wants – especially at the Keeneland September sale when Sheikh Hamdan attended himself – and landed the filly for $1.05 million.
Pletcher lost the chance to train the filly out of Dreaming of Julia, the 3-2 favorite for the 2013 Kentucky Oaks who lost all chance at the break when slammed hard on both sides, but his friend and fellow D. Wayne Lukas assistant Kiaran McLaughlin was slated to receive the filly in 2020. Three or four days after the sale Pletcher and McLaughlin talked about the filly.
“Kiaran, are you getting to get that Dreaming of Julia filly?” Pletcher asked.
“I think so, yeah.”
“Man, great, I love that filly.”
McLaughlin opted to retire from training in early 2020 – he’s still in the business and works as Luis Saez’s agent – and Shadwell went looking for spots to place its well-bred prospects and horses in training.
“When Kiaran decided to retire, I asked Todd if he would train for us,” Nichols said. “He said he would love to. And Sheikh Hamdan said, ‘Yes, I’d love to have Todd to train for us. And since Todd trained the dam, there was obvious decision to let him have the filly.”
A little more than a year later Malathaat came to the 147th Kentucky Oaks with an unbeaten record and a growing admiration from her handlers. She backed it all up with a redemptive victory in the $1.25 million stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs Friday.
The filly who got away not only came back to Pletcher she delivered a fourth Oaks win for the presumptive 2021 Hall of Fame trainer, just one behind the legend Woody Stephens and the same number as former mentor Lukas and another legend in Ben Jones. Malathaat, ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, joined Pletcher’s Oaks winners Ashado (2004), Rags To Riches (2007) and Princess Of Sylmar (2013).
“She’s such a professional,” Pletcher said of Malathaat. “Not only is she tremendously talented she’s also a very kind filly around the barn. You can’t help but love her personality. You can literally do anything with her. To have that type of personality around the barn and be as special as she is on the racetrack, it’s just rare that you find too many like this . . .
“When I met with Rick and his team at Shadwell before we started training, I saw the filly was on the roster. I was really hoping she would come our way.”
Malathaat, who got away from the gate a bit slow but not nearly as bad as her dam, turned back the previously unbeaten 5-1 third choice Search Results by a neck after a game stretch run. Sent off as the 5-2 favorite in the field of 13, Malathaat won in the sixth fastest Oaks time of 1:48.99 over the fast track. Will’s Secret finished 2 3/4 lengths back in third with Clairiere fourth and 7-2 second choice Travel Column fifth.
Malathaat came into the Oaks with just one start in 2021, a come-from-behind victory over Pass The Champagne and Will’s Secret in the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes four weeks before at Keeneland Race Course. Pletcher and Nichols originally targeted the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks for Malathaat but changed plans out of respect for Sheikh Hamdan’s family when he passed away in late March at age 75.
“Oddly enough, if he hadn’t passed when he did she would have come into this race a Grade 2 winner probably,” Nichols said. “But since he passed, I honored him by not running any of our horses for 10 days during the period of mourning. When his older brother Sheikh Maktoum passed, he called and asked me to do the same thing. So I thought that was the thing I needed to do for him.
“I asked Todd not to enter into the (Gulfstream Park Oaks). Luckily enough, the Ashland was on the morning after the 10th day.”
Velazquez rode Malathaat to victory in her debut – a 7-furlong maiden at Belmont Park in early October – and again in her three-quarter-length score in the Grade 2 Demoiselle Stakes in early December at Aqueduct in her third start. Joel Rosario rode her in the Ashland with Velazquez committed to ride Medina Spirit in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
Pletcher said Malathaat was “always Johnny’s filly” and after giving him a leg up and following the field and small crowd by normal Oaks Day standards to the racetrack, returned to a spot in the middle of the paddock to watch the 9-furlong feature.
Malathaat came away a half-beat slow and bumped with Will’s Secret leaving the gate, dropping back a few more places than Velazquez planned while Travel Column, Moraz and Search Results took the early initiative.
“The plan was to break well and get a good position, and that didn’t happen,” Velazquez said. “Obviously we knew the horses to beat. It’s important to get a good break and position you like. When that didn’t happen we had to change it right away. Riding a good horse like her I had to take my chances and try to put her in a position that I thought I should have been in and she helped me get there.
“Once I was there in the first turn I was comfortable where she was. I’m watching the horses in front closely and I see Irad (Ortiz Jr, aboard Search Results) is watching as well . . . I only had to worry about him. Then I was pretty comfortable. She’s a horse that is steady coming, steady coming.”
Malathaat tracked in fourth up the backstretch, through a half in :47.47 before the leaders started to bunch up through 6 furlongs in 1:11.31. At the top of the lane Travel Column relinquished the lead to Search Results to her outside, with Malathaat and Velazquez perched one more path out with dead aim.
“When I got to the quarter pole I thought (Search Results) was going to give me a much better run in front. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to put some pressure before he goes out.’ When I asked her right away she was into it . . . (and) got the head in front . . . I’m glad the result came our way. Makes my job a lot easier, makes me look good.”
Malathaat improved to 5-for-5 and boosted her bankroll to $1,125,150.
Nichols joked in the post-race interview that he “would have loved to run her tomorrow” in the Kentucky Derby and didn’t rule out running against the boys down the road. Pletcher trained Rags To Riches to win the Belmont Stakes – defeating Malathaat’s sire Curlin in the process – after her Kentucky Oaks victory.