A smart ride and grit at the wire made Team Valor International's State of Play best by a head in Saturday's $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park. The Graham Motion trainee ran 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack in 1:46 2/5 to return to the winner's circle under jockey Victor Lebron.
The Battaglia Memorial is the third and final local prep for Turfway's Grade 3 Spiral Stakes on March 24, itself a prep for the Kentucky Derby. Team Valor utilized the race in just such a manner last year with the Motion-trained Animal Kingdom, sending the chestnut out to a 2 3/4-length win in the Spiral before a win in the Kentucky Derby by the same margin.
In the Battaglia on Saturday, Ill Conceived and jockey Stewart Elliott were first out of the gate and set a deliberate pace up front, marking the first quarter in :24 3/5 and the half in :49 4/5 as State of Play rated to his outside. Ill Conceived led by a length nearing the quarter-pole but suddenly went wide, opening the way for State of Play to come inside, and Lebron made the most of the opportunity.
"When I saw Stewart's get the lead, I thought we'd be in good shape," Lebron explained. "I was a little worried with his horse going that slow, but it helped me to have an easier pace, so I could finish harder with my horse. His horse was getting out around the second turn and he was fighting with him, so I dug right in to the inside. I got the jump on him and started riding a little earlier than I would have."
State of Play led from the quarter-pole and appeared to be putting Ill Conceived away, but the runner-up reached for more and fought back, forcing State of Play to do the same.
"My horse just did not want to lose," Lebron added.
Ill Conceived was second after a gutsy comeback that fell just short.
"He's still learning, but I was really pleased to see him battle back," said John Servis, trainer of Ill Conceived. "He ran a great race."
Dynamical finished third, 3 1/2 lengths farther back, while Mr. Prankster, the 4-5 favorite, settled into good position through three-quarters but had no run when running was required and finished fourth. Longshot Posey Rose, hampered by a slipped saddle, completed the short field of three-year-olds. Phantom Fury was scratched by his trainer.
State of Play was the bettors' second choice at 2-1 and paid $6, $4.20, and $4. The John Battaglia Memorial put the War Front colt back in the winner's circle after off-the-board finishes in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in November and Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes one month ago. Taking the Grade 2 With Anticipation Stakes in his second start, State of Play now has three wins in five starts and earnings of $166,500.
Bred in Kentucky by Stone Farm and Dell Hancock, State of Play is out of the winning Procida mare Valeta, by Procida. His third dam is the unraced Buckpasser mare Alluvial, who is known for producing dual champion Slew O' Gold, 1979 Belmont Stakes victor Coastal and the dam of Grade 1 winners Aptitude and Sleep Easy. State of Play's fourth dam is the champion Hill Prince mare Bayou.