Evening Jewel wins Ashland Stakes

As Marilyn Braly described the circumstances that led to her and husband Tom's participation in the post-race ceremony for Saturday's Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, even she marveled at their extraordinary tale.

Small-time owners with a three-horse operation aren't supposed to claim one of the marquee races at one of the sport's most revered tracks. They aren't supposed to have a filly that could be among the leading contenders for the Kentucky Oaks — and they certainly aren't supposed to do it with a horse that at one point sold for just $8,000.

"Isn't that incredible?" Braly exclaimed. "That is just incredible."

Thanks to a determined bay filly named Evening Jewel, each one of the scenarios described is now undeniably true.

The two decades of devotion the Bralys have shown to horse racing was rewarded in the best possible fashion Saturday when their filly Evening Jewel withstood a desperate rally by It's Tea Time in deep stretch to win the $400,000 Ashland Stakes by a neck, probably earning herself a trip to Louisville for the Grade I Kentucky Oaks on April 30.

Nearly a year after trainer/owner Tom McCarthy stunned the racing world when his one-horse stable of General Quarters captured the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at the picturesque track, the Bralys headed to the Keeneland winner's circle with an equally improbable yarn.

The California-based couple who first got involved in racing about 25 years ago own a grand total of three horses — their stakes-placed mare Exquisite Timing, who is currently in foal to Dixie Union, and two horses on the track, one of whom is now a newly minted Grade I winner.

"We only have three, we're very small," Braly said. "We started years and years ago with a trainer my husband went to school with and it's just kind of evolved from there. This is the nicest horse we've had.

"I can't tell you how much this means," Braly continued. "My husband's health is not good and this is going to perk him up just tremendously, so we're thrilled."

Originally purchased by Tim Kegel at the 2008 Keeneland September Sale for $8,000, Evening Jewel was purchased privately by the Bralys as a juvenile, an investment that is looking wiser by the moment.

The bay daughter of Northern Afleet had only been off the board once in her seven previous starts and even ran second against males, getting beat by eventual graded stakes winner Caracortado last December.

In her most recent outing prior to the 11⁄16-mile Ashland, Evening Jewel showed she could run with the best of her division when she was beaten a nose by multiple Grade I winner and likely Kentucky Oaks favorite Blind Luck in the Grade I Las Virgenes at Santa Anita on Feb. 13.

"Outside of the first time she ran, she's run hard every time," trainer James Cassidy said. "Right from the beginning she showed me she had some guts. She was green, she did some weird things, but once she figured out what was happening she's been very, very competitive."

That mettle was certainly in the forefront Saturday.

With none of her seven other rivals taking control on the front end, Evening Jewel rolled to the lead from the outside post eight, settling well for jockey Kent Desormeaux down the backside with Protesting a length back in the outside path and champion She Be Wild on the rail in third.

After getting a favorable half-mile in :48.23, Evening Jewel was still full of run approaching the final turn and began spurting away from her foes as she headed into the lane.

"I wanted to make sure and have an upper hand (on the lead)," Desormeaux said. "This little filly really took a quarter mile away from the wire."

She Be Wild, who was sent off as the race favorite, dug in and made a run at Evening Jewel in the lane along with eventual runner-up It's Tea Time, but the winner had just enough in reserve as she hit the wire in 1:43.54.

"I wanted to go to the lead but Evening Jewel had the same idea," said Wayne Catalano, trainer of She Be Wild, who came home third. "I'm happy with her. You can't complain when they run good. We'll see how she cools out and then talk (about going to the Oaks) with the owners."

Canadian champion Negligee, winner of the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland last October, faded to seventh in her first start in more than 61/2 months.

"I don't know how hard the layoff was on her but she didn't have it when I needed her to have it," jockey Rajiv Maragh said of Negligee.

Barring any setbacks in the coming days, Evening Jewel will probably get her first try over a dirt surface in the Kentucky Oaks.

Thankfully for her connections, that gives them a solid four weeks to try to digest Saturday's achievement.

"They're beyond happy, they don't know how happy they are right now, seriously," Cassidy said of the Bralys. "Tomorrow or the next day it will all sink in and they'll be over the top. To them right now it's surreal."