The Keeneland surroundings already held significant meaning for trainer Olly Stevens.
He met his wife, Hetta, while both were working for Keeneland-based trainer Kellyn Gorder years ago. And when Stevens returned stateside last year to the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, he fell for the filly who would bring him his first career Grade I triumph Friday afternoon, further enhancing an operation that is making a definitive impact on Thoroughbred racing.
Qatar's ruling al-Thani family has been leaving huge footprints on the sport around the globe. On the opening day of the Keeneland Fall Meet — the track's first meeting over its new dirt surface — Qatar Racing claimed the first Grade I test of the 17-day exercise when its filly Peace and War overcame being blocked in the lane to win the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades Stakes for 2-year-old fillies by a half-length over Top Decile.
The Qataris have collectively increased their presence in Thoroughbred racing the past few years, scoring top-level victories in Europe and spending agressively at public auction.
Purchased by Sheikh Fahad al-Thani for $300,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Peace and War was making her first start stateside after three prior outings in England.
The daughter of War Front was dismissed by the betting public at odds of 23-1 but is now likely bound for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita Park after angling out from behind Top Decile in mid-stretch and exploding under jockey Julien Leparoux.
"I fell in love with the filly here and fell in love with my wife here," beamed Stevens, who has had his trainer's license for 18 months. "I was terrified watching (the last 16th of a mile). She had a terrible trip, she got cut off and I could see her finishing fourth after a bad trip. I thought it was game over but she showed a lot of guts. It's a testament to her bravery."
Stevens said that had the American public been witness to Peace and War's handy maiden win going 6 furlongs on the all-weather surface at Lingfield on May 27, they wouldn't have considered her outing on Friday a stunner.
Where she struggled over the soft turf running second last time out at Haydock, Peace and War thrived over the wet fast conditions at Keeneland and got a perfect pace set-up pace as she rated next to last in the 12-horse field.
When pacesetter Take Charge Brandi and graded stakes winner Fashion Alert came back to the field after early fractions of :22.54 and :45.60, Peace and War got blocked by a wall of horses as she tried to advance.
Once she got daylight, the bay filly surged through with authority, hitting the wire in 1:44.86 for the 11⁄16 miles.
"I had breezed her before this race (5 furlongs at Keeneland in 1:01.80 on Sept. 28), and she handled the dirt fine," Leparoux said. "I knew as soon as I got her some room, she would have a nice kick because that's what she had done in the morning. They brought her here to give her a test on dirt. Now the big test will come at Santa Anita."
Al Stall Jr.-trainee top Decile was 13/4 lengths clear of Paige in third with race favorite Gap Year a non-threatening seventh.
Work All Week takes Phoenix Stakes
Work All Week took over at the head of the stretch and kicked clear in midstretch to capture the Grade III, $200,000 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes by a length over C. Zee on Friday.
The win marked the 11-career victory for Work All Week and the only time the son of City Zip has been worse than second in 14 starts was when he finished sixth first time out at Hawthorne in November 2012.
Work All Week will likely next surface in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park.
"I wouldn't want to be the horse who eyeballs him," said co-owner Richard Papiese. "He refuses to let another horse go by him in the stretch."