In an event atypical of this spring’s racing season, a three-year-old finally brought some clarity. I have complete confidence in putting a three-year-old at the top of my list — for the first time since Classic Empire bombed in the Holy Bull (G2).
Still, the top slot does not return to last year’s champion two-year-old male. His Arkansas Derby (G1) was solid, a testament to Mark Casse’s training acumen and a suggestion that Classic Empire can once again find top-flight form. Despite the roadblocks between the Holy Bull and the Arkansas Derby, he has once again marked himself a contender. But, a clear standout? That’s going too far after his issues, after his getting only two Derby preps spaced so far apart. No, Classic Empire is not the source of my clarity.
This standout three-year-old does not hail from the Derby division, or even the Oaks division. Instead, she’s a turf sprinter: Lady Aurelia.
She proved herself an international star last year at age two, but the Giant’s Causeway Stakes yesterday at Keeneland would be her first test. It was her three-year-old debut, her first since a third-place finish in the Cheveley Park Stakes (G1) at Newmarket last September. It was her first try against older horses — she would be the lone three-year-old facing the older horses who had been exchanging blows in the filly and mare turf sprint division. It would not only show how sharp she was on return, but if she had taken the necessary step forward between ages two and three to contend with older runners.
She always looked a winner.
She not only came back the same Lady Aurelia…but, better. She proved herself against older. She rated kindly and rallied, unfazed by horses in front of her.
Naysayers can complain that Lady Aurelia didn’t win a graded stakes — the Giant’s Causeway is listed. But, her division is a special case. Though most divisions have a glut of graded stakes, the turf sprint division has a dearth. Top American turf sprinters have to run in listed company to build a full year’s schedule.
There are fifteen graded turf sprints all year in 2017: one Grade 1 (the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint), three Grade 2, and twelve Grade 3. All of the races are open to ages three and up. Just four (one G2 and three G3) are restricted to fillies and mares; all others are open company.
The picture gets even more sparse after setting aside Santa Anita’s offerings — a reasonable measure, since six and a half furlongs down the hill bears so little resemblance to a traditional turf sprint. That cuts the graded stakes calendar down to ten races all year in the division. Two of the four graded filly and mare turf sprints, a G2 and a G3, are downhill.
And, this early in the year? Even counting the downhill races, there has only been one graded turf sprint, the open Shakertown (G2) at Keeneland. What few graded stakes races there are in the division are concentrated later in the year. The only options for filly and mare turf sprinters this time of year are listed stakes. Lady Aurelia entered the same race as the in-form older fillies and mares in her division, and she won with complete authority.
One could also argue that Lady Aurelia should have to have faced males (say, in the Shakertown last weekend) to belong on my Top Ten list of three year olds. After all, I have steered clear of three-year-old filly division leaders like Unique Bella, Farrell, and Paradise Woods.
However, Lady Aurelia has done something meaningful that those horses haven’t. None of that Oaks-bound set have faced, much less beaten, older stakes horses. They are proven against three-year-old fillies. However, Lady Aurelia dismantled a field of ten foes, all between ages four and six. Given how horses develop from three to four and even five, trouncing quality older mares in the spring of her three-year-old year means something — more than a tilt against same-age males, even.
The Derby picture remains murky. But, Lady Aurelia’s feat in the Giant’s Causeway makes her a crystal-clear standout in her class.