Questing, the brilliant filly who had won her last three races by a combined 17 lengths and was bet down to 2-5 in the four-horse field, was in front on the far turn, as she had been all race. My Miss Aurelia, the unbeaten 2-year-old filly champion, was gradually closing the gap. They came together with 300 yards to run.
Those 15 or so seconds are the essence of the sport - two championship-caliber horses running as fast as they can run. The two fillies ran as one until the final yards when My Miss Aurelia finally got by and won what may have been the most exciting race since the track opened in 1974, track announcer Keith Jones calling it "a sprint to the finish."
The time (1.44.54 for a mile and sixteenth) was quite slow, only because the early fractions (25.19, 50.05, 1:14.74) were silly slow. The race was less about time and more about effort.
"I wanted to let her do her thing, but save the best for last," My Miss Aurelia's jockey Corey Nakatani said. "What heart she has, a tremendous filly."
My Miss Aurelia is co-owned by George Bolton and Barbara Banke, the widow of Jess Jackson, the man who brought us three consecutive Horses of the Year - Curlin (2007, 2008) and Rachel Alexandra (2009). This filly may not be as talented as those two, but she is as tough.
"She fought to the wire," her trainer Steve Asmussen said.
The Cotillion result set up what may be the race of the year in the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic at Santa Anita Park. My Miss Aurelia, who won last year's BC Juvenile Fillies, and Questing figure to be there, along with unbeaten 2010 BC Juvenile Fillies winner Awesome Feather (10-for-10) and the 2011 BC Ladies winner Royal Delta.
Getting three Breeders' Cup winners in the same race is a bit like having two $1 million races on the same card.
If the Cotillion was everything anybody could have imagined, the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby was nothing like anybody ever considered.
Handsome Mike entered the race with one win in nine career starts. That was 11 months ago in a grass sprint down the hill at Santa Anita. His connections kept running him in top races and the colt kept losing.
J. Paul Reddam does not discourage easily. The owner of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another figured that most of the top 3-year-olds were injured, retired or both. So Handsome Mike got on a plane from Southern California. The bettors thought so little of the colt's form he was sent off at 19-1, the longest shot in the race.
Reddam did not make the trip. Handsome Mike's trainer Doug O'Neill is nearing the end of a suspension for several carbon dioxide overages in SoCal. Assistant trainer Leandro Mora did not come to town. Neither did regular jockey Mario Gutierrez, who rode I'll Have Another all year.
No matter. Irad Ortiz, the 20-year-old New York jockey who was so disappointed when he did not win with Questing, picked up the mount, put Handsome Mike on the lead (more slow fractions like the Cotillion) in what was a race without much pace, ran favored Alpha out of the race by the top of the stretch and, with his horse's cooperation, would not let any horse pass and was actually getting away from the field at the finish, running the mile and an eighth in a slow 1:51.63 (again due to the fractions).
"I was very surprised I was on the lead," Ortiz said.
Just about everybody else was surprised he stayed there.
West Virginia Derby winner Macho Macho was second. Travers winner Golden Ticket was third. Favored Alpha beat just one horse.
It was a bizarre race from the start. Alpha was anxious in the gate, broke poorly, got squeezed and was very rank going into the first turn. Jockey Ramon Dominguez does not make many mistakes, but he ended up inside horses on the first turn with the favorite. And he had no way to get out as the slow fractions made for heavy traffic.
Handsome Mike's Pa. Derby win obviously won't make up for I'll Have Another's tendon injury taking away his chance to run for the Triple Crown, but there are worse consolation prizes than $600,000.
Ben Perkins Jr. is a University of Pennsylvania graduate who has been winning significant races in the Mid-Atlantic region for years. The trainer thought he had a chance with 14-1 Well Spelled in the $300,000 Gallant Bob because his horse had never been worse than third in nine dirt races. Still, he had to be wondering when jockey Pablo Fragoso had the colt so far behind on the backstretch that it looked like he was in another race.
Still last at the quarter pole, but the beneficiary of super fast fractions (21.41, 43.95, 56.46), Well Spelled came wide and kept coming, running down the tough Trinniberg just before the wire and finishing the 6 furlongs in 1:09.88. Favored Currency Swap finished next to last.
It was not a good day for favorites. It was a good day for the sport. It was not a day anybody ever expected to happen in Pennsylvania. But it did and it felt like a mini-Breeders' Cup, with good horses and serious races coming so fast it was difficult to keep up with it all, just the way horse racing can be when some of the country's best horses run for the money and the glory.
Contact Dick Jerardi at firstname.lastname@example.org.