Phil Sims knew the closing kick was coming.
Since the time the Kentucky-based trainer purchased Don't Tell Sophia for the minimum starting bid of $1,000 at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale, the Congaree mare had rarely failed to deliver a quality effort, finishing no worse than third in the last two years.
Of her 11 prior wins from 22 previous starts, however, none had come against Grade I company. Facing the filly widely considered the best distaffer in the nation, Don't Tell Sophia's latest rendition of her signature late-run proved the best of her enduring career.
There was little on paper to suggest multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches would be anything but the class of the field in Sunday's Grade I, $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland. When the 1-to-5 favorite shockingly backed up in the six-horse field, it was hard-knocking Don't Tell Sophia surging into the role of giant killer, fighting past Grade I winner Ria Antonia with a last-to-first rally and surviving a subsequent objection to win the 11⁄8-mile test by 21/2 lengths.
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Trained and co-owned by Sims, 6-year-old Don't Tell Sophia is the quintessential blue-collar heroine who is now likely slated for a start in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 31.
The bay mare has improved every year on the track, notching her first graded stakes score when she won the Grade II Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs last November.
This March, she came within 13/4 lengths of Close Hatches when that one won the Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn. As Don't Tell Sophia's bullet 5-furlong move at Keeneland on Sept. 28 signaled, she was never better than she was facing the Juddmonte Farms homebred again.
"I saw Sophie coming like a freight train and I said 'She's going to run them down'," said Sims, who co-owns the mare with Jerry Namy and earned his only other Grade I win when he saddle Hot Cha Cha to victory in the 2009 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland. "We didn't want to get cocky, but we went into the race with confidence.
"It's a dream, it is. It's huge of course. I felt giddy about her, but just tried to keep it to myself."
As reliable as Don't Tell Sophia's kick has been, Close Hatches had been lethal on the front end this year, coming into the Spinster unbeaten in four starts this season. The 4-year-old daughter of First Defence took the Grade I Apple Blossom, Grade I Odgen Phipps and was coming off a 5-length win in the Grade I Personal Ensign.
Though she cruised along up front Sunday through fractions of 24.19 and 47.47, she had Ria Antonia at her throat the whole way and had no response when jockey Joel Rosario called on her in the stretch, fading to fourth behind Molly Morgan.
"When that horse (Ria Antonia) came to me she kind of stayed there," Rosario said. "She gave me a little bit, but normally when they come to her she keeps on going and improves her position."
After rating at the back of the six-horse field, Don't Tell Sophia was giving jockey Joe Rocco Jr. all the confidence as she began picking up ground with ever-lengthening strides five-wide around the final turn.
Though she appeared to angle in front of Ria Antonia during her stretch run, the stewards deemed Don't Tell Sophia was already clear and that it had no bearing on the order of finish.
"I just take my time with her," Sims said of his mare who now has $979,295 in career earnings. "I let her tell me when she's ready, what she wants to do. With her pedigree, she gets better with age."
The final time was 1:49.80 over a fast track. As satisfying as the win was for Don't Tell Sophia, the runner-up effort by Ria Antonia was equally so for the connections of the filly who has not won in eight starts since being awarded the win in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies via disqualification.
"It's very gratifying for (owner) Ron (Paolucci)," trainer Tom Amoss said. "He's taken a lot of heat about what his filly is, but she's now second in a Grade I against older fillies."
The juxtaposition of emotions played out with enormous class during the winner's circle presentation as representatives of Juddmonte had to hand over the trophy most expected their homebred mare to earn with ease.
"We'll take her back and get her checked out," Juddmonte Farms manager Garrett O'Rourke said of Close Hatches. "They get beaten half a length, you say it could be she got out run. But to be beaten that far (71/4 lengths), obviously something was amiss. Hopefully it's nothing too serious.
"Some days it's our turn, some days it's someone else's turn. I'm absolutely delighted for Phil. There is no one more deserving."