Trainer John Servis said of his Maryland-bred’s emergence from such humble beginnings, “It says the game is great.”
Servis was a relative unknown before he brought Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones to win the Kentucky Derby in 2004. Incredibly, he has won the Derby and Oaks with only one starter in each race.
Chuck Zacney, who heads the Cash Is King ownership group, said of his ability to land a star when he was looking merely for a horse to fit Maryland’s breeding program, “It says everybody has a chance.”
For Zacney, lightning also struck twice. He led the group that purchased Afleet Alex for $75,000 and watched him capture the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2005.
On a sun-splashed Oaks day, a record crowd of 124,589, eclipsing last year’s mark of 123,763, roared its approval for a fast and determined filly that long ago outperformed the price paid for her at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic fall yearling sale.
The daughter of sprinter Street Boss was initially so lightly regarded that Zacney suggested to Servis that she might be made available for $40,000 in a claiming race before her debut at Parx, in Bensalem, Pa.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” Servis responded.
The reason soon became readily apparent. Cathryn Sophia, named after one of Zacney’s nieces, rattled off victories in her first four starts by a combined margin of 41 ½ lengths. But a third-place showing behind Weep No More and Rachel’s Valentina in a blanket finish in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland Stakes had Servis leaning toward heading anywhere but the Oaks, where 2-year-old filly champion Songbird awaited.
“It looks to me like the only way you’ve got a shot to beat her is to run with her,” Servis said of Songbird. “I didn’t want my horse doing that her first time at a mile and an eighth."
Everything changed when Songbird was withdrawn from consideration for the premier race for 3-year-old fillies due to a fever. It helped, too, that Cathryn Sophia showed every sign of moving forward after the Ashland, even as her connections openly questioned her ability to get the Oaks distance.
“She’s not your typical looking two-turn horse,” Servis acknowledged.
Yet she offered encouragement every morning that she could go the distance. The good ones, the great ones, outrun that pedigree and she started to give every indication she would do that.
“She improved so much after the Ashland that I felt pretty good,” said Servis.
Servis believes a turning point for Cathryn Sophia occurred in the Grade 2 Davona Dale on Feb. 27 at Florida’s Gulfstream Park. A poor start led her to settle behind horses with Javier Castellano in the irons for the first time. When Castellano prompted her, she exploded for a seven-length score.
Her new-found willingness to rate was somewhat surprising because she is so willful in her stall. Bodies can, and do, go flying.
“When you’re in her stall, that is her stall,” said Servis. “She’s run a lot of people out of her stall, I can tell you that. The great thing is she carries that attitude to the racetrack.”
The key to the Oaks was Cathryn Sophia’s willingness to sit comfortably off the pace for the heady Castellano after she broke from post 12 as part of a full 14-horse field.
“She’s matured so much mentally and learned to settle,” Servis said. “Down the backside, she was just galloping. I didn’t want to feel too good early in the race, but I was feeling pretty good.”
He felt even better when Cathryn Sophia, after advancing steadily on front-running Terra Promessa, blew past her at the top of the stretch and never looked back.
Servis was so unprepared for a celebration after Smarty Jones’ Derby triumph that he and his family wound up eating takeout pizza. They had not made a reservation at any of the popular restaurants in town.
He was confident enough this time to consider making a reservation earlier this week. But his superstitious nature led him to decide against it, leaving him to scramble for dinner arrangements once more.