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The Apple Blossom Handicap, on April 17 at Oaklawn Park, loomed as the kind of two-horse confrontation that comes around every so often, delighting fans all the more due to its rarity.
The Grade 1 race placed on a collision course Monomoy Girl, two-time Eclipse Award winner and reigning champion older female, against Swiss Skydiver, champion 3-year-old female after becoming the sixth filly to conquer males in the 147th Preakness Stakes.
Then the starting gate snapped open — and it was not nearly that simple.
Despite a slow beginning, Irad Ortiz Jr. followed the instructions of trainer Fausto Gutierrez by sending Letruska to the lead. Monomoy Girl, with Florent Geroux aboard, and Swiss Skydiver, ridden by Robby Albarado, were in hot pursuit.
It was exactly the scenario Gutierrez envisioned when he told Ortiz during his pre-race instructions: “Make them think ‘What do you have to do?’ ”
While Ortiz used hands that Gutierrez describes as “magical” to settle his pacesetter into a comfortable rhythm, Monomoy Girl and Geroux applied steady pressure, unwavering heat that typically causes front-runners to wilt. Albarado bided his time in third, saving ground inside.
Let’s let track announcer Vic Stauffer take over from here.
“They’ve run past the half-mile pole. It’s the interloper and two champions in a sprint to the wire for $1 million dollars. Letruska continues to lead. Monomoy Girl is now clearly in second. Swiss Skydiver is back at the rail and two from the front. The rest are far back. Letruska a quarter-mile from home in the Apple Blossom, just a neck in front of Monomoy Girl, who comes to challenge. And Monomoy Girl has put her head in front. Letruska is back to second. Swiss Skydiver is two back in third. Monomoy Girl has a final furlong to get, but Letruska is battling on bravely. Monomoy Girl a length. Letruska doing her level best. Monomoy Girl. Letruska battling back! Letruska. Monomoy Girl. Letruska has turned away a champion! Oh, my goodness!”
The race chart also hailed Letruska’s courage, saying she “found more in the late going to narrowly prevail in an epic battle of wills.”
The 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom — one of the most memorable races of this or any year — served as a launching pad to season-long success for Letruska on the road to the $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
Bred and owned by St. George Stable, the 5-year-old daughter of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver followed her first Grade 1 victory in the Apple Blossom with another Grade 1 score in the June 5 Odgen Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park. She was never challenged there in turning back Bonny South by 2 ¾ lengths with Shedaresthedevil coming in third.
The Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Stakes, just three weeks later at Churchill Downs, brought a 5 ¾-length cakewalk. Then, it was back to Grade 1 company and a severe test at 1 1/8 miles in the $600,000 Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 28. Letruska led at every point of call and was unrelenting in repelling Bonny South by half a length.
It was yet another “Wow!” performance.
“She has ability, but more she has a big heart. This is a special horse,” Gutierrez said. “To have this speed and to be able to run long distances and to have the big heart is special. Not for nothing, I think this is one of the best horses in the country.”
Letruska has consistently ranked at or near the top of the poll conducted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Many believe she would give the boys all they could handle if she was given a shot against them in the $6 million Longines Classic.
“All the time, this is on the mind,” Gutierrez said. “I think the correct decision is the mares with the mares and the boys with the boys.”
Gutierrez’s handling of the bay mare has been flawless. She boasts five victories in six starts this year, with those victories coming at five different tracks. Her lone defeat came by a head to Shedaresthedevil in the Grade 2 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn in a prep for the pivotal Apple Blossom. She has swept 16 of 21 career starts, the first six of those by a combined 40 ½ lengths at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City.
Letruska has taken German Larrea Mota-Velasco, the Mexican billionaire who bred and owns her, and Gutierrez on an extraordinary ride. Gutierrez has trained for St. George Stable since 1986. He won Mexico’s Triple Crown with Huitlacoche in 2015 and with Kukulkan in 2018. He had never won a Grade 1 race in the United States before the Apple Blossom breakthrough.
“For me, this is incredible,” Gutierrez said. “I come from a small racetrack in Mexico City. This horse started her career there. We had the confidence to send her here and she started to improve, improve, and improve.”
Letruska has outlasted her stiffest competition. Monomoy Girl was recently retired with a leg injury. Swiss Skydiver, after displaying brilliance during a long but wildly successful 3-year-old campaign, was seemingly star-crossed this year and tailed off. Her season was ended prematurely as she prepares for her new career as a broodmare.
Letruska is aiming for the $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes on Oct. 10 at Keeneland as a prelude to the Distaff, where her immense heart will be displayed on racing’s grand international stage at Del Mar.