Letruska Heads Field of Nine in Personal Ensign
Despite Letruska's imposing presence, a field of nine top-class older fillies and mares will line up in the Saratoga Race Course starting gate to contest the Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign Stakes at 1 1/18 miles on Saturday's blockbuster Runhappy Travers Day card.
Named in honor of the Phipps Stable's homebred champion and Hall of Famer who went undefeated in 13 career efforts, the Personal Ensign is a "Win and You're In" qualifier for the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Del Mar in November.
||As Time Goes By
||Irad Ortiz, Jr.
||Harvey's Lil Goil
Owned by St. George Stable and trained by Fausto Gutierrez, the dual Grade 1-winning Letruska will be attempting her fourth consecutive graded stakes score. She has already secured her Breeders' Cup Distaff spot with a dominating gate-to-wire 2 ¾ lengths victory in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, also a "Win and You're In" event, two starts back at Belmont Park on June 5.
"She's a horse with a lot of talent. She has a strong character and the different places that we ship get more serious and more competitive," Gutierrez said of his Mexican champion and the winner of five of her last six efforts, all graded stakes races.
The Personal Ensign is competitive indeed. Every other horse is a graded stakes winner in her own right and the field includes reigning 3-Year-Old Filly champion and 2020 Grade 1 Alabama Stakes and Grade 1 Preakness-winner Swiss Skydiver.
"This race very well could dictate who is the champion older filly and mare," said Kenny McPeek, who trains Swiss Skydiver and will saddle King Fury in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes on Saturday's card.
Letruska comes into the Personal Ensign as the deserving favorite and will break from Post 6 under Irad Ortiz, Jr.
In the Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park three starts back, Letruska defeated multiple champion Monomoy Girl by a nose, while Swiss Skydiver was third. Next time out when taking the Ogden Phipps, Letruska finished in front of Bonny South, a Grade 3 winner she meets again in this contest.
In her last effort Letruska seemingly toyed with her competition when drawing away to a 5 ¾ lengths triumph in her typical front-running fashion in the nine-furlong Grade 2 Fleur de Lis on June 26 at Churchill Downs.
"This year since the Apple Blossom, she's run with the toughest filles and mares in the division like Swiss Skydiver and Monomoy Girl," Gutierrez said. The performance she gave in the Apple Blossom was no coincidence. You don't beat horses like Monomoy Girl by coincidence.
"After Belmont, she was in good condition," he continued. "It wasn't my original idea to run in the Fleur de Lis. I was going to go to the Delaware Handicap. But after she went back to train at Keeneland, something told me to nominate. After I checked the nominations a couple of times and saw her training, I decided to run her. If we are in a fight to win an Eclipse, we have to win races."
To that end, McPeek is returning Peter Callahan's Swiss Skydiver to the distaff division. After circumstances forced his hand earlier in the Saratoga meet, he ran her in the Grade 1 Whitney against the boys here last out on August 7 and she finished fourth.
"She needed the race," McPeek said in reference to the Whitney. "She hadn't run since April. She went through that little fever she had for the Ogden Phipps. She was just off a long time. My preference was the Shuvee. I think it certainly would have been a better launching pad, but it was a good run. I'm sure she's going to improve fitness wise off that.
"In her race at Arkansas against Letruska I had to make a difficult decision. She had a light infection in a hind ankle," McPeek added. "I felt we had it under control, and I think that dulled her effort a little bit. We're confident she's going to run a lot better than she did at Oaklawn. I think she's going to be able to put three consecutive races together to finish the year, probably in the Personal Ensign, Spinster and then the Breeders' Cup. I think the Whitney hopefully leads us into that."
Swiss Skydiver, who took the Grade 1 Beholder Mile at Santa Anita in March, will depart from post 4 with Jose Ortiz aboard.
Bonny South, a Juddmonte homebred coming from the powerhouse stable of reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, will try to turn the tables on Letruska after a runner-up finish in the Ogden Phipps. The 4-year-old filly was a well-beaten fifth in her last start in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap as the odds-on favorite but has been breezing with stablemate, Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes 4-5 favorite [and Belmont Stakes-winner] Essential Quality, impressing her trainer in the process.
"She seems to really like it here. She's had some really good moves over the main track and has worked the last two weeks with Essential Quality and holding her own," said Cox. "We're going to throw her last race out at Delaware. There was a lack of pace, and she probably didn't want to be that close. She needs a set up and she didn't get it. She's been here for a good while and she's settled in, so I'm excited to give her this opportunity.
"I'm excited about getting her back in good form in the Personal Ensign. Hopefully, she has a pace to run at, and I think we'll get that," Cox added. "She's going to have to step up and run her `A' race, but she's certainly training like she's ready to do it."
Bonny South, second in the Grade 1 Alabama to Swiss Skydiver here last year, drew post 3 and Manny Franco takes over the reins.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is sending out Harvey's Lil Goil, third in the 2020 Alabama, who will be returning to the dirt after making her last six starts on the grass. On July 17 the gray/roan daughter of 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah was fourth in the Grade 1 Diana here.
Harvey's Lil Goil, the winner of the Grade 3 Beaugay on the Belmont Park inner turf course three starts back, drew post 8 and will partner for the first time with Luis Saez.
She turned in an eye-popping bullet five furlongs work over the Oklahoma dirt training track in :59.79 seconds on August 21 for the fastest time of 40 horses working the same distance.
"She did work really well. We've seen her good before, but she's doing well and we're happy with her. She handles either surface [dirt or turf] very well," said Mott, a three-time winner of the Personal Ensign with Close Hatches , Hall of Famer Royal Delta , and Link River . "Letruska is the one who's in good form right now, but I'd like to see my horse run well. We're crossing our fingers and she'll give us a good effort, I think."
As Time Goes By, who runs for the Coolmore connections and has been sent from the Southern California base of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, ran second to Swiss Skydiver in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile and then racked up a pair of Grade 2 wins, taking the Santa Margarita by 9 ¼ lengths and the Santa Maria by a nose, both at Santa Anita.
The 4-year-old daughter of the Baffert-trained American Pharoah, out of the multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Take Charge Lady, looks to rebound from a fourth-place finish last out in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch on August 1, where she stumbled out of the Del Mar gate and then came up empty.
"She's probably the best-bred horse in the race. She's a big, beautiful mare," Baffert said. "She had a bad race last time. I thought she was going to win at Del Mar, but she got away bad and got shuffled back and at Del Mar, if you get shuffled back early you have no chance. So, she just didn't run. She didn't show up that day, and they'll do that."
Baffert said that the 1 1/8 miles of the Personal Ensign should suit his filly.
"The further the better for her. She's been working really well, so hopefully we'll get a good, clean break. I think she'll like that big track," he said. "I've been very high on her and took my time with her, so hopefully this race could be her coming-out party. It's a tough race, but it's a good spot for her."
Hall of Famer Mike Smith will jet in from Southern California to ride As Time Goes By from post 2. Smith and Baffert teamed up to win the 2018 Personal Ensign with Abel Tasman.
Graceful Princess, winner of the Grade 3 Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park in her last outing, will have home field advantage. Whisper Hill Farm's exquisitely bred daughter of Tapit out of former Horse of the Year Havre de Grace has a pair of Hall of Famers in her corner with trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez [outermost post 9].
"It's a tough race as you'd expect in a Grade 1 but there's a gap in the stakes schedule for older and fillies and mares going long at the moment, so not too many options. She's really stepped it up, her last race in particular, and I hope she can continue moving forward," said Pletcher, who won this race in 2012 with Love and Pride and in 2006 with Fleet Indian.
Four-time Saratoga leading trainer Chad Brown will attempt to add the Personal Ensign to his redoubtable resume and will saddle Royal Flag and Dunbar Road, who also figure to benefit from some home cooking.
Will Farish' homebred Royal Flag, who breaks from post 5 under Joel Rosario, won the Grade 3 Shuvee here at 1 1/8 miles on July 25 when returning from a three-months layoff, and Peter Brant's 2019 Grade 1 Alabama winner Dunbar Road, who drew the rail, tries to regain her winning ways with new rider Flavien Prat.
"Hopefully, Royal Flag will have a similar trip where she has a big pace in front of her and she can come with her run," Brown said of the daughter of the undefeated and four-time Grade 1 winner Candy Ride and the Mineshaft (2003 Horse of the Year) mare Sea Gull. "It would be the ultimate for her. It's quite a family. She's been an improving horse over the years, and it would be well deserved."
Cammarota Racing's Miss Marissa, who is trained by Jim Ryerson and will be ridden by Daniel Centeno, completes the field and will leave from post 7. The 4-year-old daughter of He's Had Enough captured last year's Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan and enters from a front-running score in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap on July 10.
The Personal Ensign is slated as Race 10 on the 13-race card. First post is 11:35 a.m. Eastern.
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