LOUISVILLE — As commercial breeders, the best thing Phil Needham and his wife Judy can end up questioning themselves on is why they decided to let one of their own go.
They fielded such queries in the wake of the success of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and multiple Grade I winner Dullahan, both of whom the Needhams co-bred and later sold.
Standing in the winner's circle after Saturday's Grade II, $231,000 Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs, Phil Needham was happy to wonder the same thing after Cristina's Journey — another product of their operation — put forth a gate-to-wire effort to win by 21/4 lengths, earning herself a likely trip to California for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
The Pocahontas was one of four stakes, three graded, on Churchill's Saturday card. One race earlier, Steve Asmussen-trainee Lucky Player became the first horse to lead the points standings for the 2015 Road to the Kentucky Derby when he bested stablemate Bold Conquest by a neck in the Grade III, $115,500 Iroquois Stakes for 2-year-olds.
The 11⁄16-mile Pocahontas has produced eventual Grade I winners in three of its last five runnings, including this year's Kentucky Oaks heroine Untapable.
As easy as Cristina's Journey was to be around as a foal is how handily she has dismissed her competition in her two career starts, winning by a combined 61/2 lengths.
"As the breeder you wonder why you sold them now that she's accomplished," laughed Phil Needham, who bred Cristina's Journey along with his wife and Bena Halecky. "But it's always been our formula to raise as good a horse as we could raise and let someone else enjoy the racing side.
"She was always a nice filly to be around. You question whether it was good wisdom to sell but ... if you count the numbers you sold and haven't materialized like this one."
Trainer Dale Romans signed the ticket for Cristina's Journey after she brought a final bid of $37,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September sale. Carrying the colors of owner Tim Newcomer's GSN Racing, the 2-year-old daughter of Any Given Saturday broke her maiden going 6 furlongs at Ellis Park on July 27 and has yet to be headed in her brief career.
Most importantly, she showed maturity to relax under jockey Miguel Mena through fractions of 24.19 and 48.63 despite being pressed by True to You down the backside of the Pocahontas.
"She was pressed today and she drew off clear and looked good to me," said Romans when reached at Kentucky Downs. "I'm sure everybody liked their filly, but you don't know until you line them up and she ran the way we were hoping."
Sent off as the 7-to-2 second choice in the 10-horse field, Cristina's Journey covered the distance in 1:46.37 over a fast track. Pangburn came up for second, 21/2 lengths clear of Milehigh Butterfly.
The 11⁄16-mile Iroquois featured similarly tepid fractions but a much closer result. After sitting just off the flank of 6-to-5 favorite Mr. Z through an opening half in 49.51, 11-to-1 shot Lucky Player edged clear of that one when the nine-horse field hit the lane but then had the chestnut frame of Bold Conquest range up to his throat.
Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. kept the son of Lookin At Lucky to task with right-handed urging as they hit the line in 1:45.76 for his second win in four career starts. Hashtag Bourbon held for third with Mr. Z fading to fifth.
Earlier on the card, 6-year-old Don't Tell Sophia put herself in line for a possible start in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland on Oct. 5 when she rallied from last in the six-horse field off a half-mile in 49.76 to win the $108,200 Locust Grove by 21/4 lengths in her first start since March.
The Grade III, $107,300 Ack Ack Handicap saw favored Bradester jump to the lead at the start and stubbornly fight off a challenge from Carve en route to a 13/4-length victory in the one-mile test.