The 77th running of the Ashland Stakes produced the first-ever dead heat in a Grade I race in Keeneland history as Room Service and Rosalind hit the wire simultaneously after an 11⁄16-mile journey around the Polytrack oval.
Ken McPeek's gut reaction told him all the determined strides his charge Rosalind laid down throughout the length of the Keeneland stretch were not going to be for naught.
Yet for every minute that ticked by in the aftermath of Saturday's Grade I, $500,000 Ashland Stakes without a number being flashed on the tote board, fellow trainer Wayne Catalano was growing more confident that the fire-breathing charge his filly Room Service put in was going to result in a post-race celebration in their favor.
There are some sporting endeavors where the efforts from participants make it a shame someone has to lose. When the crowd of 27,688 finally learned who the Ashland heroine was, it was fitting that the spoils had to be shared.
Both the chestnut Rosalind and her bay foe Room Service had to pick their way to the front after rating near the back of the 13-horse field. After Rosalind advanced on an outside path and struck the front coming off the final turn, Room Service came up ever wider and threatened with every stride as they hit the line seven lengths clear of third-place finisher Thank You Marylou.
"I thought we had it," beamed McPeek, who enjoyed a hearty round of hand-slapping with Catalano once both their numbers were put up after about a six-minute wait. "I was pretty confident we either won it or at worst were a dead heat."
"I thought I got nosed out to tell you the truth," Catalano added. "But when they took that long I said 'Okay, I'll settle for that dead heat now.'"
With the dead heat, the connections of Rosalind and Room Service will each get $200,000 from the purse and a total of 70 qualifying points toward the Oaks as the first-place value of 100 points and second-place value of 40 were combined and divided.
McPeek and owner Ray Struder were fairly convinced Rosalind was Oaks worthy even though she only had a maiden win to her credit in six prior starts. The daughter of Broken Vow was second in the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland last October to go along with third-place runs in both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Grade II Pocahontas over the dirt at Churchill Downs last fall.
"She's just a beautiful, big rugged filly and she's got a good turn of foot for a big filly," McPeek said. "The future is big for her. We kind of kept her fresh all winter and her race at Gulfstream (third on Feb. 27) was just a test drive to get her ready for the season."
Room Service is also steadily growing into her 3-year-old self, hitting the board in all five of her prior efforts including a breakout triumph in the Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes over the Gulfstream Park turf on March 2 for the daughter of More Than Ready.
When long shot pacesetter Istanford took the Ashland field through honest fractions of :22.96 and :45.90, it gave both eventual winners the pace they needed to pick off rivals after Room Service sat last and Rosalind 10th at the half-mile mark.
"She put everything together and matured. She started learning her job," Catalano said of Room Service. "She settled down and started learning how to do things instead of being so young and excited. She's getting really nice right now."
Neither filly gave an inch as they got in close quarters coming to the line. As jockey Shaun Bridgmohan kept at Room Service with a right-handed whip and Joel Rosario vigorously urged Rosalind on, the two hit the wire in 1:43.38.
"She could feel the other horse coming and she kept on fighting and kept on going," Rosario said. "For a second I thought I'd maybe get there but the other horse was coming with a strong finish."
McPeek said the Kentucky Oaks and even a possible trip overseas for the Group I English Oaks in June is certainly on tap for Rosalind. Room Service — who has never raced on dirt — will have her main-track form tested before a final decision on the Kentucky Oaks is made.
"We'll take her to Churchill and train her over the track," said Gary West, who owns and bred Room Service along with his wife Mary. "If she doesn't like the dirt we won't run her. But this is just the best. When you own and raise one and win a Grade I, it doesn't get any better than that."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.