By Alicia Wincze Hughes
LOUISVILLE – As commercial breeders, the best thing Phil Needham and his wife Judy can end up questioning themselves on is why they decided to let one of their own go.
They fielded such queries in the wake of the success of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and multiple Grade I winner Dullahan, both of whom the Needhams co-bred and later sold.
Standing in the winner’s circle after Saturday’s Grade II, $231,000 Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs, Phil Needham was happy to wonder the same thing after Cristina’s Journey – another product of their operation – put forth a gate-to-wire effort to win by 2 1/4 lengths, earning herself a likely trip to California for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
The Pocahontas was one of four stakes, three graded, on Churchill’s Saturday card. One race earlier, Steve Asmussen trainee Lucky Player became the first horse to lead the points standings for the 2015 Road to the Kentucky Derby when he bested stablemate Bold Conquest by a neck in the Grade III, $115,500 Iroquois Stakes for 2-year-olds.
The 1 1/16-miles Pocahontas has produced eventual Grade I winners in three of its last five runnings, including this year’s Kentucky Oaks heroine Untapable.
As easy as Cristina’s Journey was to be around as a foal is how handily she has dismissed her competition in her two career starts, winning by a combined 6 1/2 lengths.
“As the breeder you wonder why you sold them now that she’s accomplished,” laughed Phil Needham, who bred Cristina’s Journey along with his wife and Bena Halecky. “But it’s always been our formula to raise as good a horse as we could raise and let someone else enjoy the racing side.
“She was always a nice filly to be around. You question whether it was good wisdom to sell but…if you count the numbers you sold and haven’t materialized like this one.”
Trainer Dale Romans signed the ticket for Cristina’s Journey after she brought a final bid of $37,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September sale. Carrying the colors of owner Tim Newcomer’s GSN Racing, the 2-year-old daughter of Any Given Saturday broke her maiden at going six furlongs at Ellis Park on July 27 and has yet to be headed in her brief career.
Most important, she showed maturity to relax under jockey Miguel Mena through fractions of 24.19 and 48.63 despite being pressed by True to You down the backside of the Pocahontas.
“She was pressed today and she drew off clear and looked good to me,” said Romans when reached at Kentucky Downs. “I’m sure everybody liked their filly but you don’t know until you line them up and she ran the way we were hoping.”
Sent off as the 7-to-2 second choice in the 10-horse field, Cristina’s Journey covered the distance in 1:46.37 over a fast track. Pangburn came up for second, 2 1/2 lengths clear Milehigh Butterfly.
The 1 1/16-miles Iroquois featured similarly tepid fractions but a much closer result. After sitting just off the flank of 6-to-5 favorite Mr. Z through an opening half in 49.51, 11-to-1 shot Lucky Player edged clear of that one when nine-horse field hit the lane but then had the chestnut frame of Bold Conquest range up to his throat.
Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. kept the son of Lookin At Lucky to task with right-handed urging as they hit the line in 1:45.76 for his second win in four career starts. Hashtag Bourbon held for third with Mr. Z fading to fifth.
“Lucky Player was laying extremely well, he was in a perfect spot,” Asmussen said. “Ricardo gave him a great trip. I think he benefited a lot from his two-turn race that he had previously second in the Prairie Juvenile Mile at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows in August) and then Bold Conquest – I think he was a little wide early, not a lot of pace, but he still continued well.”
Earlier on the card, six-year-old Don’t Tell Sophia put herself in line for a possible start in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland on October 5 when she rallied from last in the six-horse field to win the $108,200 Locust Grove by 2 1/4 lengths in her first start since running third in the Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn on March 15.
Don’t Tell Sophia came out of the Azeri with a quarter crack that forced her to miss a start in the Grade I Apple Blossom on April 11. Despite the mini layoff and pacesetter Baby Fresh being allowed to walk through fractions of 25.31 and 49.76, the daughter of Congaree came with a sweeping move around the far turn, leaving graded stakes winner Molly Morgan in her wake for place money.
“She shows up, you can count on her,” said trainer and co-owner Phil Sims, who purchased the bay mare for just $1,000 as a yearling. “She likes this track, too, a whole lot. If you look at her, you know she’s not a thousand dollar horse. She just happened to be in the right place. She’s by Congaree who wasn’t a faster stallion, but that’s what I look for. Her mother was a graded stakes placed horse, and her mother was a nice horse. I look for those kind of horses, maybe not that fast of stallion but they can have the physique as well.”
Frivolous held for third in the 1 1/16-miles Locust Grove, 3 1/4 lengths ahead of 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Ria Antonia.
Race favorite and multiple Grade I winner On Fire Baby faded to last in the field in what was her 17th career start. Owner Anita Cauley indicted afterwards the 5-year-old daughter of Smoke Glacken will likely be retired after that outing.
“I think it’s time for her to go home and be a broodmare,” Cauley said. “We’ve had a good run, but it’s time.”
The Grade III, $107,300 Ack Ack Handicap saw favored Bradester jumped to the lead at the start and stubbornly fight off a challenge from Carve en route to a 1 3/4 length victory in the one mile test.
The Ack Ack victory by the Eddie Kenneally-trained Bradester snapped a four-race losing streak that dated to a Feb. 22 triumph in the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds. Owned by Joseph Sutton, Bradester won for the third time in seven 2014 starts and improved his career record to 5-5-1 in 13 races.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.