Antonoe closes with a rush to win Just a Game

ELMONT, N.Y. -- In late-summer 2015, Antonoe looked like she could be the best 2-year-old filly in France. On Saturday in the Grade 1 Just a Game Stakes at Belmont, Antonoe suggested that she might be the best 4-year-old turf filly in North America.

Last of seven with a quarter-mile to run, Antonoe uncorked a furious rally under Javier Castellano, diving to the inside and running down Sassy Little Lila and Dickinson to win by three-quarters of a length. Antonoe was six lengths behind a six-furlong split of 1:09.75 and stopped the timer in 1:32.12 for one mile on very firm turf. Do the math: That's a final quarter-mile in not much more than 21 seconds.

"I'm pretty sure I never had a horse in my training career come home that fast at any distance at any level," said trainer Chad Brown.

Brown also trains Lady Eli, who just won the Grade 1 Gamely at Santa Anita, and his barn is stocked with an embarrassing trove of top-level turf-stakes horses, fillies in particular. Antonoe looks to be as good as any of them.

"What a tremendous finish she had today," Castellano said. "You don't see many horses doing what she did."

Antonoe ($8.20), by First Defence and out of the Dynaformer mare Ixora, was bred in the U.S. but began her career in France for Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms. She won her career debut by 6 1/2 lengths over the filly Qemah, an eventual Group 1 winner, but after a Group 3 win, Antonoe finished seventh in the Group 1 Prix Marcel Boussac to end her 2-year-old campaign and never regained her brilliance during a three-start 2016 campaign.

Brown said he was told that Antonoe had sustained a hind-end injury of some sort, but whatever the case, Juddmonte took her out of training late last summer, gave her plenty of time off, and sent her to Brown early this year.

"I really want to thank Prince Khalid for keeping her in training and the whole team at Juddmonte [for] deciding to give her another chance," Brown said. "They could have very well bred her instead, and this filly was sent to me in outstanding condition."

Grand Jete, who impressively won the Grade 3 Eatontown at Monmouth Park last week, came to Brown at the same time as Antonoe. Brown paired the two for workouts and shortly thereafter phoned Garrett O'Rourke, the manager of Juddmonte's Kentucky Farm.

"I breezed them a couple times, and I said to Garrett, 'Wow, What's the problem here?' And he just said, 'I don't know, maybe there are no problems.' Week after week after week, they were training together, and I couldn't believe my good fortune."

Antonoe made her U.S. debut April 14 at Keeneland and won a second-level allowance race like she had been shot from a cannon. Brown and Juddmonte wasted no time going after their goal, a Grade 1 win, and pointed for the Just a Game.

Saturday's race was a one-turn mile, and Antonoe was coming out of a longer two-turn race, and it took her a while to find her footing.

"Today, we cut back the distance, and I had to ride her European style, with a lot of patience, save ground the best I could," Castellano said.

Sassy Little Lila made the front and went a moderate first quarter-mile in 23.70 seconds and her half in 46.92. Dickinson, getting a good inside run just behind the leader, came outside turning for home to challenge Sassy Little Lila, but neither could withstand the winner's late burst.

"It was a good race," said Brad Cox, Sassy Little Lila's trainer. "She probably got a little bit tired second race off the layoff and coming back in 21 days. I kind of thought she had it turning for home, but she was second-best today."

Sassy Little Lila beat Dickinson by a nose, with Harmonize a distant fourth, followed by last year's winner, Celestine, Prize Exhibit, and 2-1 favorite Roca Rojo.

"She was pretty far back, but the winner came from last," Roca Rojo's jockey, Florent Geroux, said. "Maybe the ground was a little bit too hard for her."

As well as Antonoe ran Saturday, she could prove to be even more effective at longer distances this summer. Already, she has proven worth the wait.