the highlight of my trip to Indiana

This Saturday, I visited Indiana Grand for the first time, for the Indiana Derby.  It was a frenetic day: Paul and I went up there that afternoon, covered the night card, and made the overnight run back to Chicago.  I’m still recovering from the lack of sleep on Sunday night, but it was more than worth going.  The people were friendly — and in a lot of cases even familiar, since there were so many Chicago horses and connections who made the trip for Indiana’s biggest Throughbred race day.

Though so much of the ink was spilled on the day’s graded events, it was one of the races earlier in the day that made Saturday a day to remember forever.

Photo credit: Laura Donohoe.

Of course, that picture above was not from Saturday.  That was from October of 2014, the first time I ever visited the Hawthorne backside, the first time I visited her trainer Michele Boyce’s barn.

I may have been a happy camper…but the horse in the picture, Lovely Loyree, was not quite on her best behaviour.  She bit me on the right arm that day.  Hard.  Hard enough to break skin.  Hard enough to leave a bruise for a week or two.  Hard enough to leave a scar, however faint it may now be almost two years later.

But, how could I hold it against her?

She’s a horse.  Not only was I a stranger, but I had no idea how to interact with horses.  Unlike so many people in racing, I didn’t grow up around horses.  I went on a trail ride or two when I was younger, but that was about it.  The first time I had ever so much as given a horse a peppermint was just a few months back, and this was still only my second time up close with racehorses.  I was excited to be there…but also a little scared of doing something wrong.  Maybe she sensed that?  Maybe she was still just feisty after the race she had won the day before?

Of course, I didn’t leave the backside that day thinking “oh no, Lovely Loyree bit me!”  I left being really excited about spending the morning with a lot of good people and a lot of happy horses.

So many of the people with whom I spent that morning almost two years ago were also in Indiana this past Saturday.  They were there because Lovely Loyree was trying for her first open stakes win in the Indiana General Assembly Distaff.

Loyree had shown class over and over again.  Even before I met her or any of her people, she hit the board in the Hatoof Stakes.  She was 2014’s Illinois champion three-year-old filly.  She became a stakes winner in her own right last fall at Hawthorne, winning the Stickney Handicap against Illinois-preferred company.  Over the winter, she tried graded stakes company twice at Tampa Bay.  In the Endeavour Stakes (GIII), she went off the longest shot of six in the field.  She led most of the way, and though Tepin romped, she gamely dug in to hold third.  The next month, Loyree returned in the Hillsborough (GII).  Though the best middle-distance turf horse in the world won once again, and clever frontrunner Isabella Sings held second after doing her best Shining Copper impression — it was Lovely Loyree who rounded out the trifecta despite the public having dismissed her at 90/1.

Not only had she shown a lot of class on the racetrack through that time…but, at least when I was around, she had shown quite a bit of class off of it. Though she had been a little bitey the first time I met her, she had been a lot better-behaved at ages four and five.  Sure, she could be a bit feisty sometimes, but she refrained from sinking her teeth into me.

She had instead been focusing that energy on becoming the best turf mare she could be.

Her five-year-old season had begun beautifully at Tampa, but there was more to do.  She got a break, returned last month with a second-place finish in the Mike Spellman Memorial Handicap at Arlington, and then came to Indiana.  The Indiana General Assembly Distaff was a rematch of sorts.  Cash Control, the prohibitive favourite in the race, beat Lovely Loyree in an allowance at Churchill Downs last fall.  But, that race was Loyree’s first in ten months.  This time, Loyree was not coming in first off the lay.  She had that race under her.

She needed every bit of her condition on Saturday.

From where we were standing along the rail, closer to the sixteenth pole than the finish line, it looked like Cash Control got there in time.  But, the camera person was following Loyree.  Could it be?

It could.

They showed the replay on the infield screen, and that vantage point told another story.  It was hard to believe after what we saw live.  But, looking straight at it showed that Lovely Loyree had held by a neck.  She dug in, turned the tables on Cash Control, and scored the biggest win of her career so far.

Despite our inauspicious first meeting, Lovely Loyree has become one of my favourite horses in training.  She is consistent, to the tune of hitting the board in her last fourteen starts, spanning over two years.  She is versatile, able to set the fractions or sit off of them.  And, she is game, always ready to fight for a lead that is not yet hers, or to keep one she has taken.

Lovely Loyree is all racehorse, and I can’t wait to see how she builds off her big win on Saturday.

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