Despite the relentless winter, Grade 1-winning filly Sweet Reason never missed a single scheduled breeze at Belmont Park, according to trainer Leah Gyarmati.
Following a successful return to the races on March 7 after four months on the sidelines, the daughter of Street Sense is now ready to begin what Gyarmati hopes will be a major campaign, starting Saturday with the 119th running of the Grade 2, $300,000 Gazelle for three-year-old fillies at Aqueduct.
The illustrious 1 1/8-mile dirt race has been won by some of the top fillies in racing history, including Beldame, Next Move, Heavenly Prize, Serena's Song, My Flag and Silverbulletday.
The Gazelle is one of four major graded stakes on the Saturday card, topped by the Grade 1, $1 million TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, as well as the Grade 1 Carter Handicap and Grade 3 Bay Shore. The race will award 100 points to the winner for a spot in the starting gate of the May 2 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.
Sweet Reason opened her career sensationally, winning her debut last August at Saratoga by 6 1/4 lengths in a 5 1/2-furlong race and then scoring by 5 3/4 lengths in the Spinaway. She followed that with a second-place finish after an awkward start in the Frizette at Belmont Park, and then finished fourth, beaten only two lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Gyarmati gave Sweet Reason a month off following the Breeders' Cup and then kept her in steady training the entire winter. In her return, an optional claiming contest, she beat four others by a half-length at a mile on the Aqueduct inner track. She recorded a career-low 58 Beyer Speed Figure for the race, but the paltry number did not alarm the trainer.
"If she had got a 58 and not won, it would have been a problem," Gyarmati said. "But (jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.) never touched her with the stick. He didn't have to.
"I think she's moving along nicely. I need to see her in there against top three-year-old fillies. I have no reason to believe she is any less than she was (last year)."
Gyarmati has been building Sweet Reason's stamina with long works for her first test at 1 1/8 miles. She worked with stablemate Noble Moon, a Wood Memorial entrant, six furlongs in 1:14 2/5 last Saturday and also has recorded works at distances of a mile, five furlongs and another six furlongs dating back to February 23.
"She breezes with Noble Moon and plays with him," Gyarmati said. "I'm very happy with her. She's doing super. The last race was a perfect race coming back. I couldn't ask for a better setup coming off the layoff and now with 30 days rest. She's dragging the rider around there."
Ortiz will retain the mount on Sweet Reason, who is the 8-5 morning-line favorite and drew post position 3.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will send out two of the six runners in the Gazelle field. The most accomplished is Got Lucky, a daughter of A.P. Indy who finished second by a neck last November in the Demoiselle and second in her most recent start, the Rachel Alexandra on February 22 at Fair Grounds. On that day, she faced Untapable, who won by 9 1/2 lengths and then returned this past weekend to take the Fair Grounds Oaks by 7 3/4 lengths.
"We ran into what appears to be the Kentucky Oaks favorite and probably got a little farther back than we needed," Pletcher said, "but I thought she ran on well to be second. I felt like the Gazelle made sense as a 1 1/8-mile race that would hopefully be run on a racetrack that would play fairly as opposed to Gulfstream, which might play a little more to speed. She's a very typical A.P. Indy: She's got a good, steady rhythm to her. She'll settle back and make a long, sustained run."
Pletcher's other runner is My Miss Sophia, who will make her stakes debut in the Gazelle after breaking her maiden by 11 lengths in her second start, a one-turn mile on March 9 at Gulfstream Park.
Pletcher hopes the daughter of Unbridled's Song can emulate two other three-year-olds in his stable - Constitution, who won the Florida Derby in his third start, and In Tune, who took the Gulfstream Park Oaks in hers.
"The only difference is she finished second first time out where the other two won," Pletcher said of My Miss Sophia. "She'll be stretching out to two turns for the first time. We're encouraged by the way she's trained, encouraged by the way she's run. It's a calculated risk. We're optimistic she's up to the challenge. She'll be very prominent."
Got Lucky, 7-2 on the morning line, will break from the 2 post under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, while My Miss Sophia, the 9-5 second choice, will break from post 4 under Javier Castellano.
Bird Maker, who finished second in the Golden Rod last November at Churchill Downs, will run for trainer Ian Wilkes after a fourth-place finish behind In Tune in a February 27 optional claimer at Gulfstream Park.
The Marylou Whitney Stables-owned daughter of Empire Maker will be making her third start this year, and Wilkes hopes she will prefer Aqueduct to the speed-favoring course at Gulfstream Park.
"I had to use her a little more (in the races at Gulfstream Park)," said Wilkes, who would prefer Bird Maker settle before making her run. "I think she got out of her element. Sometimes you've got to put them in there (close to the pace) a little earlier. This is not going to be an easy race. What's she's got to do is step forward. When she turned from two to three, it took a while to get her where I had her as a two-year-old. Every horse is different. I love to let them come along at a consistent rate."
Luis Contreras will ride Bird Maker for the first time. The filly breaks from post 6 and is 8-1 on the morning line.
Forced to miss stakes objectives because of two quarantine situations this past winter at Parx Racing, trainer Butch Reid is excited to have his Vero Amore in the field for the Gazelle.
Second in the Ruthless and Busher at Aqueduct, Vero Amore wound up running against males in a tough allowance race in her most recent start, finishing third and beaten just a length by Charleymillionaire, who will compete in the Bay Shore.
"That race was a Godsend that I could get that into her," Reid said of the allowance. "I'm totally convinced she'll run this far. I don't think the 1 1/8 miles is a problem."
Jockey Jose Ortiz picks up the mount on Vero Amore, 12-1 on the morning line and breaking from post 5.
Wraith, third behind Sweet Reason in the March 7 allowance, rounds out the field, and will be ridden by jockey Rajiv Maragh.