The late Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum would have loved every instant of the pulsating stretch run of the 147th Longines Kentucky Oaks on Friday at Churchill Downs.
His pulse would have quickened when Malathaat, purchased by his Shadwell Stable for $1.05 million as a yearling in a transaction he heartily endorsed, ranged up beside Search Results and the two undefeated fillies dug down for gears they never knew they had.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez drew on decades of experience as he allowed Malathaat to crowd her foe without fouling her. Irad Ortiz, Jr., winner of three successive Eclipse Awards, countered with all of the youthful vigor he could muster aboard Search Results.
Yes, Sheikh Hamdan would have relished every stride of that battle. And he would have swelled with understandable pride when Malathaat wore down her rival by a determined neck to remain perfect through five starts.
“He would have loved the race,” said Rick Nichols, who manages Shadwell Farm. “He really enjoyed seeing a horse come from behind and winning. He liked winning that way, not losing that way.”
When the tremendous duel was over and the rivals were galloping out, Ortiz reached over and patted Velazquez on the back, an acknowledgment that the all-time earnings leader has seemingly lost nothing to time. Velazquez had won the Oaks just once before, providing trainer Todd Pletcher with his first win in the nation’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies aboard Ashado in 2004. Pletcher, a certain choice to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame this summer when results of the vote are announced, also registered Oaks triumphs with eventual Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches (2007) and Princess of Sylmar (2013).
According to Velazquez, 49, his confidence in his mount never wavered. “We got up next to her (Search Results) and my filly went by. Then she waited a bit. She does that,” he said. “The other filly came back, but I could tell I was still in control. I never thought I was going to do anything but win.”
Ortiz had no regrets. “We just got beat,” he said. “She ran a really solid effort and fought hard down the stretch.”
Malathaat, a gorgeous bay daughter of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, completed the mile and an eighth in 1:48.99. That represented the sixth-fastest clocking in Oaks history.
“She is just such a professional. Not only is she a tremendously talented filly, but she’s also a very kind filly around the barn,” Pletcher said of Malathaat. “You just can’t help but love her personality. You can literally do anything with her. So to have that type of personality around the barn and be as special as she is on the racetrack, it’s just rare that you find too many like this.”
Will’s Secret snagged third despite going off at 26.50-1, the latest example of trainer Dallas Stewart’s ability to turn longshots into contenders in big spots. She was piloted by 60-year-old Jon Court in another testament to riding savvy.
Even in his absence, Sheikh Hamdan deeply impacted the latest edition of the Oaks. Nichols was stunned to see that Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings was willing to part with Malathaat, and he was skeptical at the same time. When Sheikh Hamdan went to eyeball her, Nichols told him, “I’m going to show you this filly and you’re going to like her and it would surprise me if they didn’t pull her out of the sale.”
The yearling sure looked to be the complete package. Not only did she have Curlin as her sire but her dam, Dreaming of Julia, was breathtakingly fast. Pletcher, who had conditioned Dreaming of Julia, said he also found the yearling to be compelling. He could not muster the financial muscle, though, to match the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.
Under Sheikh Hamdan, Shadwell enjoyed a powerful presence in the United States and abroad. When he spotted must-have equine talent, he was hard to deny.
“He loved the sport,” Nichols said. “Even in his older years, he didn’t lose the passion for it.”
Malathaat was initially assigned to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who had enjoyed a long relationship with Shadwell. Sheikh Hamdan approved her transfer to Pletcher when McLaughlin closed his operation to represent jockey Luis Saez.
In an odd twist, the timing of Sheikh Hamdan’s death in March at age 75 might ultimately benefit his prized filly. Pletcher had targeted the Gulfstream Park Oaks for her in what would have been the first of two prep races. In a tribute to Shadwell’s leader, Nichols decided that all of his horses should remain out of competition for a 10-day period of mourning.
Fortunately for Pletcher, the April 3 Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland occurred one day after the moratorium on running ended. She got just enough out of the Ashland, overtaking Pass the Champagne by a head, and now is unusually fresh for the rigors ahead.