Trainer Peter Eurton and owner Marc Ferrell were ready to chalk up Madame Cactus's experience in Saturday's Grade II Lexus Raven Run as a loss. Worst part was the two were coping with that outcome hours before the field for the 7-furlong test went to post.
Having flown her from California this past Tuesday, the connections of the daughter of Cactus Ridge were dismayed to learn their filly was the last horse on the also-eligible list in the overflow field of 16 entered, meaning two contenders needed to scratch for the lightly raced chestnut to run.
Fate came through in the 11th hour. Madame Cactus was in starting gate and her ability carried her from there. Under last-minute handling from jockey Joe Rocco Jr., the 3-year-old filly rallied on the far outside to nip Eden Prairie by a neck in the $250,000 Raven Run at Keeneland.
The last thing Eurton expected as he sat inside a Waffle House on Saturday afternoon was that he and Ferrell would be on the Keene-land lawn accepting post-race accolades. After long shot Plenty O'Toole was declared out of the Raven Run in the morning, Eurton learned during his late breakfast that Grade I winner Lighthouse Bay had also scratched, clearing the way for him to saddle Madame Cactus after all.
"She shipped on Tuesday but I couldn't get a hold of anyone Monday to see how it was shaping up," said Eurton, who earned his first Keeneland stakes victory. "Tuesday, she was already there and ... sure enough all 16 went into it.
"We thought we were dead. No way two horses scratch. But one horse scratched early this morning and ... I'm at the Waffle House when they called and said 'You got in.' Thank God we did."
The uncertainty over Madame Cactus's status kept her connections from flying jockey Joe Talamo from California to ride her. Again, fortune intervened when Rocco — now second in the Keeneland standings with eight wins — became available after Lighthouse Bay scratched.
Shuffled back to 10th after breaking from the outside post No. 14, Rocco found chemistry with his mount quickly as he moved her out nine-wide around the far turn after Turn by Turn went the half mile in :44.67.
Moving in stride with My Option just to her inside, Madame Cactus kept churning to run down Eden Prairie in the final strides after that one had opened up a 21/2-length advantage in the lane.
"I think we had the whole grandstand looking at us because I was jumping on everybody, kissing everybody," said Ferrell, who used to work in health care management but now operates VinMar Farm in Versailles. "There are no words to describe that feeling.
"This sport has the biggest highs and lowest lows so you have to stay somewhere in the middle. But today I'm going to stay as high as I can because this is the biggest win of my career."
Sent off at 11-to-1 odds, Madame Cactus covered the distance in 1:21.71 for her first graded stakes win in six career starts. The outing was just her second start back since last November, when she emerged from a fourth-place finish in the Grade III Delta Princess Stakes with a knee chip. She was sidelined until her runner-up effort in the C.E.R.F. Stakes at Del Mar on Sept. 4.
"I thought she would be a little keener today, closer to the pace but instead she got packed out wide," Eurton said. "She just has a lot more talent than we gave her credit for. She ran huge today."