JUST A GAME STAKES | PURSE: $500,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS AND UP | F & M | GRADE 1 | 1 MILE (TURF)
Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Stephanie's Kitten took the rail trip to victory in the $500,000 Longines Just a Game Stakes at Belmont Park June 8, digging in determinedly to best Better Lucky by half a length after a dogfight down the lane.
The Wayne Catalano trainee settled fifth behind an easy pace set by Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection, who eventually faded to fifth in a field of six older fillies and mares racing on yielding ground. Mizdirection went a quarter-mile in :24.50 and a half-mile in :48.13 pressed by the rank European import Laugh Out Loud (GB), and continued through three-quarters in 1:12.55 before relinquishing the lead.
Stephanie's Kitten, a 4-year-old homebred daughter of Kitten's Joy , found a hole on the hedge as the field turned for home. She darted through under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, then hooked up with 11-1 Better Lucky, who looped wide around the tiring front-runners while making her bid with Joel Rosario.
"It was do-or-die; you stay there or you die in there," Velazquez said. "She handled the ground great, that was the most important thing. When I asked her, she was there for me. [Better Lucky] ran a huge race. She gave me a good run for the money, that's for sure. I know she's a fighter, definitely."
Better Lucky actually obtained a short lead in early stretch, but could not withstand the fierce counter of Stephanie's Kitten, who pulled ahead at the furlong mark and held on gamely to the wire. Hungry Island finished three lengths back in third, while 5-2 favorite Centre Court was fourth.
"They moved the rail in and the course there hadn't been touched all year, so the two path was the path to be in," Catalano said. "We were in the No. 2 hole, and when the hole opened up, and Johnny stuck her head in there, I was happy with it, I really was.
"When it's a horse race like that -- it looked like it was going to be a bob of a head -- I was worried about that. When she sprinted away I was happy."
Trainer Tom Albertrani said there was no shame in the runner-up finish of Better Lucky, who upset the Matriarch Stakes last November at odds of 35-1 and was the longest shot in the Just a Game field at 11-1. Better Lucky ran fourth in her first start of the year, the April 13 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland last time out.
"She ran really well, but the winner was able to cut the corner on us," he said. "Fortunately for her, she was able to save all that ground. Coming into the race, my filly was doing extremely well and we thought she'd run really well second time off the layoff."
"I have to give credit to the horse on the inside, she's a nice filly," Rosario said. "Of course my horse ran a big race today. We got beat, but she ran good. It was very exciting; me and the other horse were head-to-head. I tried to beat her but she was too tough."
Off at odds of 3-1, Stephanie's Kitten returned $8, $5.20, and $3.50 while Better Lucky brought $9.60 and $4.70. Hungry Island paid $3.50 as Mizdirection and Laugh Out Loud completed the order of finish. Dayatthespa scratched.
Jockey Julien Leparoux said Centre Court did not handle the yielding surface as she came in off a Jenny Wiley win on firm going. Centre Court finished off the board for the first time in her life; in 10 of 11 previous starts, she had been first or second.
"The ground is a little too soft," Leparoux said. "She didn't have the same kick at the end. She ran even at the end. She was in a good spot, just no kick."
Bred in Kentucky out of the Catienus mare Unfold the Rose, Stephanie's Kitten is the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner and took the May 4 Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs last time out. She improved her record to seven wins from 12 starts, with three thirds and earnings of $1,580,404.