Love And Win

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Push, pull, push, pull, push, pull. John Velazquez looked more like an Olympic rower than a jockey while describing what it’s like to ride Love And Pride, a 4-year-old filly with her own ideas about racing strategy.

“You grab and let go, grab and let go, grab and let go, until she comes back to you,” he said. “If she’s head and head or a head in front, forget it – no way you’re going to win. She’s going to win that fight. Once another horse goes, she’ll lay off that horse, but it’s not easy. You have to get her before she gets you.”

Sunday, Velazquez got her and then she got everyone else – upsetting Royal Delta and It’s Tricky in the $600,000 Personal Ensign for Green Hills Farm and trainer Todd Pletcher. The race was supposed to be a showdown between last year’s champion 3-year-old filly Royal Delta, and multiple Grade 1 winner It’s Tricky. Four others signed on, but they were obvious understudies to the star attractions.

The race changed in an instant as It’s Tricky stumbled twice leaving the gate from her inside post, nearly losing Eddie Castro, spotting the field 6 lengths and creating a new tactical situation. Expected pacesetter Brushed By A Star broke a step slow next to It’s Tricky but was hustled to the front by Corey Nakatani. To her outside, Love And Pride made Velazquez work, but rated just off the leader.

“I didn’t know what happened to Eddie,” said Velazquez. “I knew the horse with the speed was (Brushed By A Star). She’d been on the lead the last three races. I saw Eddie warming up and he didn’t do a lot so I was expecting him to ride off both of us. That’s the way I was looking at it anyway. Nobody warmed up but Corey Nakatani (on Brushed By Love) so you know that’s the horse that’s going to go to the lead. It worked out good for me.”

Behind them stalked Royal Delta, in It’s Tricky’s spot, through a quarter-mile in 24.16 seconds. Last early, It’s Tricky made up the lost ground and moved to fourth alongside Royal Delta through a half in 47.16 seconds. Brushed By A Star went 6 furlongs in 1:11.38 as Love And Pride moved closer. Royal Delta rolled up on the outside while It’s Tricky drove through on the rail. For a few strides near the quarter pole, the expected clash looked like a reality – Royal Delta sweeping wide off the turn and It’s Tricky cutting the corner.

Between them, Love And Pride answered the challenges – shrugging off Royal Delta, then putting away It’s Tricky at the three-sixteenths pole. Sent off at 10-1, Love And Pride won by a half-length in 1:49.22 as Royal Delta kept grinding to catch It’s Tricky and get to the winner’s girth. Game as an underdog boxer, It’s Tricky drew praise for the effort while settling for third.

“It changed the whole complexion of the race immediately, but we still were in the position we would have wanted to be in,” said Pletcher. “We just didn’t have It’s Tricky up there with us. It compromised her chances but didn’t do anything that different for our filly. It’s Tricky ran a huge race when you look at it.”

Love And Pride erased a messy effort in the Delaware Handicap, where she and Jeremy Rose blasted through fast fractions and faded to fourth behind Royal Delta going 1 1/4 miles. A winner on the filly here last summer, Velazquez watched the race live and grimaced.

“Forty-five and change, I didn’t know she could go that fast,” he said. “I rode her here last year and we went in 48. I didn’t want to watch the race again, I didn’t want to ride her like that. I told Todd I was just going to try to finesse her like I did at Pimlico (a second in the Allaire du Pont Distaff), get her back, try to get her to relax. She ran a huge race that day. She has it in her, she just needs to relax the first part of the race.”

She did that Saturday, thanks to Velazquez’s give and take plus Pletcher’s call to take the blinkers off the daughter of A.P. Indy. The trainer wasn’t sure the Personal Ensign was the target until the week of the race, however. Based at Delaware Park, Love And Pride worked a half-mile in 47 2/5 seconds there Monday and Pletcher talked options with assistant Michael Dilger. Love And Pride could have gone to Monmouth for the Lady’s Secret the same day, could have shipped to Saratoga.

“How’s she doing?” Pletcher asked Dilger. “Is she ready to try a big one?”

Dilger’s response covered all the bases: “Training great, ready as she can be.”

The Kentucky-bred shipped to New York, stepped off the van and drew an appreciative “Man, she looks awesome” from her trainer. Taking on Royal Delta and It’s Tricky seemed at least plausible, if daunting.

“In that particular case, it’s a no pressure situation,” said Pletcher. “She’s already a graded stakes winner, she’s Grade 1 placed. It’s a big purse, if we get a piece we were going to be happy. She was doing well, why not take a shot?”

Bred by Stud TNT, Love And Pride won two of three at Delaware last year before taking the Proud Spell Stakes at Saratoga and placing third in the Grade 1 Gazelle at Belmont. She started 2012 with a stakes win at Aqueduct, went to Hawthorne and Pimlico, then back to Delaware Park where she won the Grade 3 Obeah in June before the Delaware Handicap disaster.

“We were trying to get a graded stakes win and the Obeah was there, a mile-and-an eighth,” Pletcher said. “You win that, you think DelCap. Can we stretch her out to mile and a quarter? She liked the track and sometimes that’s an edge. She’ll get a mile and a quarter under the right scenario. You just have to nurse her along.”

That didn’t happen. She went too fast early, forced Royal Delta wide on the far turn and lost by 9 1/2 lengths as Royal Delta defeated Tiz Miz Sue.

“She was strong, too strong,” said Pletcher. “Suicidal fractions. She bounced out of it well, and we made a couple of adjustments.”

The blinkers came off, Velazquez went on. The van headed north.

“She relaxed for me,” said the jockey. “She’s run some good races for me. If she lets you get  her back a little bit, at least for the first part of the race, she’s going to finish with you. That was the case today. I know the filly, she’s been running with decent horses. She stepped up big time. She was running against Royal Delta and It’s Tricky, but she’s OK too. We beat a champion. My horse put in a really good race.”