David vs. Goliath scenarios are nothing new in Thoroughbred racing, a natural byproduct of a sport that regularly brings participants from every walk of life onto a shared stage.
With her $1,000 sales price and niggling physical issues that kept tripping up her large frame, the 5-year-old mare Don't Tell Sophia is a natural fit for the David role, no more so than this weekend when the horse slated to be next to her in the starting gate was four votes away from being a two-time Eclipse Award-winning champion.
Make no mistake, a victory by Don't Tell Sophia in Saturday's Grade III Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn would go down as an upset. But if all one considered was her recent form and took her modest background out of the mix, one might find that perhaps the daughter of Congaree is outgrowing her underdog status.
Oaklawn's 11⁄16-mile Azeri Stakes is getting some play this weekend as it marks the season debut for My Miss Aurelia, the champion juvenile filly of 2011 who just missed being champion 3-year-old filly of 2012.
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While My Miss Aurelia has tasted defeat only twice in her eight-race career, those losses have come in her last two starts, a runner-up effort in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic and a third-place finish in the Grade I La Brea Stakes in December.
If the Azeri is the first step in My Miss Aurelia's attempt to reassert her class, it could just as well be the moment Don't Tell Sophia continues her momentum and becomes a force in the older female division for her Lexington-based co-owner and trainer, Philip Sims.
Purchased by Sims at the 2009 Keeneland September Sale for the minimum bid, Don't Tell Sophia has a three-race win streak that began with an allowance victory at Churchill Downs last November. She has since demolished her competition in two stakes at Oaklawn this year.
In case pundits doubted her season-opening 71/4-length victory in the 11⁄16-mile Pippin Stakes on Jan. 19, the bay mare trounced a group that included graded stakes winner and fellow Azeri entrant Tiz Miz Sue by 61/2 lengths in the Bayakoa Stakes on Feb. 16.
"In the past, she's kind of been nagged with one issue then another little thing that had kept her from really being at her best," said Sims, who is wintering at Oaklawn for the first time this season. "It's not been anything major, just bad timing on a lot of things. But hopefully she's got all that behind her.
"She was mentally mature, but physically she's just so darn big. We were hoping she would come around later and we'll know Saturday for sure. She did it easy last time without really being asked."
Sims knew he wasn't buying a precocious type when he set his sights on Don't Tell Sophia in 2009. What he didn't figure was he'd be the only one getting the bid spotters' attention.
With a pedigree that doesn't scream off the page and a frame that was clearly going to need time, Sims projected he would still have to spend in the $20,000 range. It was the first time she would pleasantly surprise him.
"I was in the right place at the right time," recalled Sims, who owns Don't Tell Sophia in partnership with Jerry Namy. "People weren't really looking for a Congaree and the Florida pinhookers (resellers) didn't want her for a 2-year-old sale because you know you were going to wait on her.
"I was willing to wait."
It has taken some time to figure out Don't Tell Sophia's forte as she has run on all three surfaces in her 12 career starts, breaking her maiden on turf and trying distances from 61/2 furlongs to 11⁄8 miles.
The 11⁄16-mile distance of the Azeri over the Oaklawn dirt has been ideal for the mare's off-the-pace style. Though she's not particularly quick out of the gate, she has exploded when finding a clear path — something she could get again with only seven horses entered in the Azeri.
"If we have some good luck on Saturday, we'll go probably to the (Grade I) Apple Blossom (at Oaklawn on April 12)," Sims said. "I would prefer the pace Saturday not be too slow, but this filly really doesn't care. She just makes her run and she can overcome some stuff, so that makes my life easier.
"I think she still holds the fastest 11⁄16 miles for the meet so far. But we'll know where we stand after Saturday."