Eclipse Award finalist Questing could get storybook honors afterall

On November 2 in the aftermath of one of the most heralded editions of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, the connections of Questing were simultaneously coming to grips with the disappointment of what had transpired and giving thanks that what they witnessed didn’t appear to have long term, frightening consequences.

The last thing anyone expected to see from the multiple Grade I-winning daughter of Hard Spun that day was her running dull early on, being pulled up on the backstretch and vanned off the Santa Anita Park track. While her 3-year-old season ended one of the worst notes possible, the upshot for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and owner Godolphin Racing is that her physical being wasn’t terribly compromised – and that her previous brilliance might have been enough to overshadow that moment.

Questing figures to be part of a heated off-track battle this Saturday when the 2012 Eclipse Award winners are announced at Gulfstream Park as she is a finalist for champion 3-year-old filly along with Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can and 2011 2-year-old champion My Miss Aurelia.

Though My Miss Aurelia bested Questing by a head in the Grade I Cotillion Stakes and was a game second to Royal Delta in the Ladies’ Classic, the brief nature of her four-race campaign and fact she ended the year running third in the Grade I La Brea Stakes meant voters had a tough decision to make when weighing it against Questing’s two dazzling Grade I triumphs in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes.

A contusion to her eye discovered after the Ladies’ Classic appeared to be a culprit behind Questing’s dismal outing that evening. And while not taking anything away from the winner, McLaughlin sure wishes Questing wasn’t carrying seven more pounds than My Miss Aurelia during their stretch battle in the Cotillion. Even if his bay filly doesn’t earn divisional honors this Saturday, however, McLaughlin says there are more opportunities ahead as the plan is to race Questing this year once she recovers from having minor surgery this winter.

“She is in Lexington now,” McLaughlin, a Lexington native, said Thursday. “We sent her home (to Darley) after the Breeders’ Cup and she had a small chip removed out of her right hind ankle. She is laid up there for now but the plan is for her to race as a 4-year-old. Obviously the Breeders’ Cup (is a goal) and you work back from there. As well as she ran at Saratoga, we would maybe like to get her back there.”

After starting her career in England and making her first two starts of 2012 on the turf, Questing stamped herself as a divisional force when she won an allowance race by 3 3/4 lengths on the main track at Belmont and followed that up with a 4 1/4 length triumph in the Coaching Club American Oaks at the Spa.

For as many impressive runners as McLaughlin has trained, including 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor, few have delivered a single effort that resonated as much as Questing’s subsequent Alabama victory. Even after clicking off fractions of :22.84, :46.01 and 1:09.74, the filly drew off to win by nine lengths despite ducking and weaving her way through the stretch.

“Invasor obviously had some great performances and other horses throughout the years…but that was one of the biggest ‘wow’ races I’ve had as a trainer,” McLaughlin said. “Watching her drift out the way she did in the Coaching Club and for her to run as erratic as she did in the Alabama, you know she has her moments and (the eye injury in the Breeders’ Cup) probably affected her more than maybe the average horse. She can have her idiosyncrasies and be a little funny at times.”

McLaughlin hopes to have the enviable issue of keeping two strong distaffers apart this year as he also has Grade I winner Dance Card gearing up for her 4-year-old campaign. Also owned by Godolphin, Dance Card captured the Grade I Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct on November 24 in what was her graded stakes debut and has been galloping regularly at Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida.

“She is doing great,” McLaughlin said. “The (Grade III) Sabin is in the middle of February (at Gulfstream) so it’s a case of do we want to get her cranked up, get her going and maybe hooking Royal Delta there. We haven’t worked her yet but she’s galloping daily. We have three or four possible races in mind. ”

Even with Questing and Dance Card returning, there will be some voids for McLaughlin to fill in his shedrow for at least the first half of the year. Grade I winners Alpha and Emcee as well as Grade I placed Fortify are all currently in Dubai, according to McLaughlin, with designs on possibly competing on the Dubai World Cup card on March 30.

“We hope they make it to World Cup night,” McLaughlin said. “We hope to get them back in May but you don’t know how that goes.”