Better Lucky earned a stellar reputation as a leading turf miler at ages three and four, but has begun to show her versatility in main track sprints this year at age five. The Darley homebred will seek to win one of the latter division's more lucrative events, the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina, at Saratoga on Saturday.
Best known for victories in the 2012 Matriarch at Hollywood Park and 2013 First Lady at Keeneland, the Darley's homebred five-year-old Ghostzapper mare has made two of her three starts this season on non-turf surfaces. The first was a solid, rallying second to Judy the Beauty in the Madison at Keeneland over Polytrack. The most recent, in the $95,000 Shine Again over the Ballerina's seven-furlong course and distance July 21, resulted in Better Lucky overcoming a 12-length deficit to defeat Grace Hall by a head.
BALLERINA STAKES DRAW
"We felt like we've accomplished enough with her on the grass -- she's won two Grade 1s -- that if she takes back to the dirt as we saw in the Shine Again, the Ballerina would be a logical race to try her back," trainer Tom Albertrani said. "She's been training as well as I've ever seen her."
Also exiting the Shine Again is My Miss Aurelia, the 2011 champion juvenile filly, who was making her first start that day following a 16-month absence. She finished third, beaten a half-length, in what was her first outing since moving from the barn of Steve Asmussen to the Todd Pletcher stable. My Miss Aurelia is winless in four outings since taking the Cotillion at Parx in September 2012.
"I think [the Shine Again], hopefully, will move her forward," Pletcher said. "I thought she ran hard that day. It was a long time since she'd run, and the complexion of the race forced us to get her involved early. I think she needed that run, so I've been pleased with the way she's trained. I thought her last breeze was particularly good and, hopefully, an indication she's in top form for this."
La Verdad is one of four New York-breds in the field and the most likely pacesetter in the Ballerina. She's used her blazing speed to good use winning several state-bred stakes in addition to the April 19 Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct, but a tardy break from post 1 in last month's Honorable Miss Handicap resulted in a non-threatening, fifth-place effort as the 6-5 favorite.
"Everything went poorly, and she still wound up beaten only three lengths, so we'll forgive her," trainer Linda Rice said. "I think that seven-eighths may not be her best distance. I rather it be six or 6 ½, but she's come out of the race very well and she breezed excellently the other day. How many Grade 1's do you have for fillies and mares sprinting?"
Also representing the Empire State's breeding program are Artemis Agrotera, last year's Frizette winner and the only three-year-old in the field. Up the track in her season debut, the June 7 Acorn, she rebounded to defeat state-bred rivals by more than 10 lengths in a course-and-distance allowance July 23.
"I just decided that, in my opinion, she fits very well in the race, and for a Grade 1 for all that money, it's time to go while she's good," trainer Michael Hushion said. "If she wasn't rounding out to her old-time form, I don't think she would have run as well as she did no matter who she was running against."
Other locally born contenders are Hot Stones, photo-finish winner of the Bed o' Roses Handicap two back and third in the nine-furlong Shuvee Handicap last time, and the six-year-old Willet, a multiple stakes winner who was Grade 2-placed in the Go for Wand Handicap in late 2012.
The Ballerina field is rounded out by Kipling's Joy, Voodoo Tales, and Geeky Gorgeous.
Filimbi, who made a favorable impression taking the $100,000 De La Rose in her U.S. stakes debut August 2, is the likely favorite to repeat in the Grade 2, $250,000 Ballston Spa, a 1 1/16-mile test for fillies and mares on the inner turf.
A Listed winner in France for owner-breeder Juddmonte Farms, Filimbi was a rough-trip second to multiple graded stakes winner Somali Lemonade in her stateside debut at Keeneland in April. Rebounding next out at the same level at Belmont, she showed a strong late kick to take De La Rose by 1 ¾ lengths while under hand urging from Joel Rosario.
BALLSTON SPA STAKES DRAW
Second in the August 2 De La Rose while making her first start since December was Dayatthespa, the Grade 1-winning New York-bred who was meeting defeat for the first time over the Saratoga turf. The Chad Brown trainee figures stronger in her second start back, and will take some catching in a race lacking much in the way of pace.
"I think she got a lot of her last race," Brown said. "The fractions were a little strong, especially coming off a layoff, but we'll be much fitter this time around. She came out of the race well and has been training great."
Dayatthespa may opt to run in the Yaddo for New York-breds on Sunday, according to Brown, who will assess both fields before making a decision.
Another Grade 1 veteran, Centre Court, appeared to shake out of her doldrums when taking the Honey Fox at Gulfstream in March, but reversed form in the spring when only fifth in the Jenny Wiley and Churchill Distaff Turf Mile.
"She had a little trouble at the start [of the Distaff Turf Mile], but she blew a shoe when that happened," trainer Rusty Arnold said. "She ran with one shoe off and bore out most of the way, so it was disappointing, but I feel we have an excuse. We had to give her some time to get it all fixed up, and she's in good shape now."
In better form of late is Grade 3 winner Abaco, who has rallied to place in three of five starts this year, including a half-length loss in the Jenny Wiley. Last time, in the nine-furlong Diana, the six-year-old mare still trailed a field of 10 at the eighth pole before making a belated wide kick to finish fourth, 1 ½ lengths behind Somali Lemonade.
Strathnaver, a Grade 3 winner over 12 furlongs, successfully cut back to a mile when a nose second in the Just a Game two back, but did not enjoy a clean trip when sixth in the Diana last time.
"I was a little disappointed [in her Diana] but more frustrated," trainer Graham Motion said. "She had an awkward trip, getting bumped coming out of the gate and did not get a good set-up. She wasn't beaten very far. It was frustrating; with a better trip I think she's right there."
The Ballston Spa field is rounded out by 2013 Virginia Oaks winner Nellie Cashman, who was cross-entered to the Violet at Monmouth Park on Saturday, and the overmatched Night Song.