In assessing a horse's body language, ears up is often a sign of happiness and interest. It is a look that makes for beautiful pictures, but is not a pose one expects from a racehorse who just went through bruising fractions on the front end on a muddy track against an accomplished field of challengers.
Yet, as Juddmonte Farms' Close Hatches stretched her lead to 5 lengths en route to her fourth straight win and third consecutive Grade I score during the Personal Ensign Stakes on Aug. 22, she hit the finish line looking as nonchalant as she appears in her routine gallops.
"The manner in which she won in Saratoga, that was well beyond my expectations," said Juddmonte manager Garrett O'Rourke. "And that lovely photo of her crossing the wire with her ears pricked. You don't expect to see horses winning Grade I races with their ears forward like that."
Everything Close Hatches has done in 2014 has looked a picture. On Sunday, the 4-year-old daughter of First Defence and current leader of the distaff ranks looks to overwhelm five others with her confidence in the Grade I, $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland.
A year ago, Close Hatches was part of the Big Three of the 3-year-old filly ranks, a brilliant trio that saw herself, eventual divisional champion Beholder and Kentucky Oaks heroine Princess of Sylmar take turns owning the top-level races.
Where she may have been just a tick behind the other two in 2013, Close Hatches has turned the corner of maturity and established herself as the best older mare in training heading into November's Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park.
After opening her year with wins in the Grade II Azeri and Grade I Apple Blossom, Close Hatches prevailed in a blockbluster edition of the Grade I Odgen Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park on June 7, defeating Princess of Sylmar by a head with Beholder finishing three-quarters of a length back in fourth.
"She was a top filly last year but it looked like when we got into May-June time, she kind of filled out a little bit," trainer Bill Mott said. "By the time we got to Belmont to run in the Phipps, it looked to me she had grown a little more, lengthened out. I'd say she's pretty close to being a full, mature horse now.
"She's got a lot of confidence because she's been winning."
In addition to growing into her large frame while maintaining her easygoing demeanor, Close Hatches has become adept at taking it to her competitors and breaking their hearts early on.
Though she typically raced close up last season, the dark bay filly has been the outright pacesetter in three of her four wins this year, often carving out honest fractions and putting the heat on those trying to reel her in.
"Joel (Rosario) who has ridden her said last time, 'I just nudged her into position out of the gate and she rode me the rest of the way,'" O'Rourke said. "A filly feeling good, she has tactical speed, able to lay up there and why not on the dirt take advantage of it?"
Phil Sims-trainee Don't Tell Sophia will try to take advantage of the fact Close Hatches has been cooling her heels since her Personal Ensign triumph.
Don't Tell Sophia, who was beaten 13/4 lengths while running third to Close Hatches in the Azeri, enters the Spinster off a 21/4-length win in the Locust Grove at Churchill Downs on Sept. 6 in which she defeated fellow Spinster entrants Molly Morgan and Ria Antonia.
The 6-year-old daughter of Congaree is typically best in her second start off a layoff — which the 11⁄8-miles Spinster will be — and closed like a monster in the Locust Grove.
"We tried her in the Azeri in the spring and I think she (Don't Tell Sophia) is a little better now than she was at that point," Sims said. "Close Hatches is tough, but we'll give her a go at it."
With the male handicap division turned upside down by the retirement and/or injuries of its top stars, there are rumblings Close Hatches could garner support for Horse of the Year honors should she do what is expected in the Spinster and cap it off with a Breeders' Cup Distaff win.
"She's just strutting around with an air of confidence that athletes get when they're right at the top of their game," O'Rourke said. "It's very, very difficult to maintain that level of brilliance from April all the way until the end of the season. And if she can pull it off it will be a tremendous tribute to her and a tremendous tribute to Bill Mott and the job he has done with her this year."