Safari Queen, on a roll of winning races, left little doubt yesterday why she was champion filly at age 2 in Argentina.
The 5-year-old daughter of Lode, with John Velazquez riding, took the $150,000 Bewitch Stakes as odds-on favorite, paying $2.80, defeating Barancella by two lengths while Moon Berry finished third. Velazquez described the winning mare as push-button. She really appeared to be that way, starting out the 11/2 mile race on the turf fourth of six, then smoothly working her way to the front. Her run was text-book perfect.
Safari Queen broke from the outside, No. 6 post position, then eased over to the inside of the course to cruise down the backstretch next to the rail.
"She let herself rate very well on the backstretch," Velazquez said. "She broke well enough that she dropped inside and we saved ground." Approaching the far turn, Velazquez eased her back outside of horses.
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The mare is so responsive that Velazquez said he was able to "let her do her own thing," as she worked her way up toward the front on the far turn. "From then on," the jockey said, "she did it pretty free and easy."
Safari Queen indeed makes her job look easy, now that she's won four of her last five starts, all at distances of at least 13/8 miles. Trainer Todd Pletcher said she has improved since she began racing at longer distances last November.
But he had also advised Safari Queen's owners when they imported the mare from Argentina that it might take a year for the mare to reach top potential after changing hemispheres. They have owned her 11/2 years.
"He was right on the money as always," said Ric Newman of Boca Raton, Fla. Newman owns Safari Queen in partnership with Alan Cohen of Weston, Fla., managing general partner, chairman of the board and CEO of the Florida Panthers.
Cohen was not at Keeneland yesterday, but Newman was on hand to watch as Safari Queen won the Grade III stakes in 2:28.75 on firm turf. She increased her career earnings to $583,489.
"If she keeps going the way she is, we might supplement to get into the Breeders' Cup," Newman said.
He had all the inspiration he needed after his partner, Cohen, won the Eclipse Award for 2006 3-year-old filly with Wait a While.
Today at Keeneland
First post: 1:15 p.m.
Feature: Ben Ali Stakes, about 4:45