By: Alicia Wincze Hughes
Aron Wellman admits he is approaching this season with something to prove.
The president of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners felt more than a little slighted when the group’s multiple Grade I-winning filly Curalina was not even a finalist in the Eclipse Award balloting for champion 3-year-old filly of 2015.
If she continues to perform the way she did during her 7 1/2-length triumph in Friday’s Grade I, $300,000 La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs, Wellman’s belief that her credentials stand her among the best in her division will become indisputable.
“I’d be lying if we said we were not disappointed with the lack of respect she was shown last year in the voting for champion 3-year-old,” Wellman said. “You know, we just want what’s best for the filly but we are entering this year with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, and I think she made a pretty darn big statement today.”
In her first start since running third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff last October 30, Curalina could not have been more emphatic as she kicked on when roused by jockey John Velazquez to earn the third Grade I win of her nine-race career.
The 1 1/16-miles La Troienne was one of five graded stakes on the undercard of the Kentucky Oaks.
Few bring horses back off a layoff the way seven-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher does. While Pletcher and Eclipse Thoroughbreds originally looked at starting Curalina back in the Grade III Doubledogdare Stakes at Keeneland on April 22, they thought couple more weeks of time and the possibility of a more prestigious result in the La Troienne would pay dividends.
“Anytime you come in to a Grade I off a six-month layoff you’re going to have your concerns,” Wellman said. “But when you have Todd Pletcher on your team, anything is possible. He’s not just the best trainer in the game, he’s the best of all time and he had her prepared brilliantly.
“We considered the Doubledogdare and…Todd said â€˜We can run, but she’s probably a work or two short for that.’ And to run in a Grade III for $150,000 when we can have three weeks and two good works to run in a Grade I, I think even Todd and I could figure that out.”
With little speed in the six-horse La Troienne field, Velazquez had Curalina perfectly positioned in second just off of pacesetter Angela Renee through tepid early fractions of 24.24 and 48.38. The 4-year-old daughter of Curlin rolled up to stick her nose in front at the head of the lane and then exploded under a handful of taps from Velazquez en route to hitting the wire in 1:42.45 with 20-to-1 shot Engaginglee getting up for second.
“Once I got my position, I made sure to stay there,” Velezquez said. “I wanted to keep (4-to-5 favorite) Sheer Drama in a tight spot. When we came to the lane, my horse just took off. There was no competition coming after her.”
Sheer Drama, winner of the Grade I Madison at Keeneland on April 9, finished third.
“I was talking to (jockey) Joe (Bravo) and he said she never really took a good hold,” said David Fawkes, trainer of Sheer Drama. “I don’t think she likes the track. She never gets a real, good solid footing.”
Curalina improved her record to five wins from nine career start with $1,190,940 in earnings. A start in the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park on June 11 is likely next.
“She can do anything,” Wellman said. “She won the (G1) Acorn going a one-turn mile at Belmont and she’s won going 1 1/8th-miles. I don’t think she has any distance limitations. If anything when she was going 1 1/8th-miles last year in the Beldame and in the Breeders’ Cup, she ran good races, I think she was just getting tired at the end of the year there. Touch wood, she comes out of this well and we’ll be ready (for the Phipps).”
Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl