On the afternoon of Aug. 21 at Saratoga Race Course, Malathaat once again proved that she is at the top of her class, winning the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes under an attentive ride by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
In the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks a month ago at Saratoga, Velazquez and Malathaat were on the losing end of a frantic stretch duel with longshot Maracuja, falling a head short and spoiling her undefeated record. The 3-year-old filly raced on the lead that day, though previous wins in the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes and Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks had demonstrated her ability to win from off the pace.
In the Alabama, the daughter of Curlin was well back of pacesetting longshot Played Hard, though perhaps not by design. Breaking from post six, Malathaat stumbled out of the gate, nearly going to her knees, putting Velazquez in the position of making several split-second decisions.
“The first thing you think about,” said the rider, “is, ‘Should I pull her up? Did she grab a quarter?’ After a couple of jumps, I could feel that she was OK, and after that, I made sure I had the position I wanted going into the first turn.”
That position was fifth place, a path or two off the rail, a half-length or so behind Maracuja. Velazquez’s job was far from done: riding her for the fifth time—three of those rides wins—he put his knowledge of Malathaat to work.
Though running comfortably, Velazquez knew that she “took a little bit to get going” and to keep focused, so he began encouraging her, and as they hit the three-eighths pole, he again engaged her attention.
“I said, ‘OK, mama, we got to get busy,’ but as soon as I got to the horse in front, she was too quick there and I thought, ‘Now I’m too soon.’ But that’s the way she does things.”
“I could see Johnny ask her to improve position and she would, and then she’d kind of come off the bridle,” said her masked trainer, Todd Pletcher, who returned to the backstretch Saturday morning for the first time since being diagnosed with COVID-19 last weekend. “She’s an extremely intelligent horse, and she loves the game. I think she kind of likes playing with horses. She identifies a target, and when she gets to that target, then she kind of thinks, ‘Next game.'”
Taking the lead at the eighth pole, Malathaat overtook a stubborn Army Wife, and it looked like Malathaat might have another grueling run to the wire. But unlike in the Coaching Club American Oaks, she was able to draw away, winning comfortably by 1 1/4 lengths. She ran the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.59 and paid $3.10 to win as the odds-on favorite. Clairiere got up for second, followed by Army Wife, Will’s Secret, Played Hard, Crazy Beautiful, and Maracuja.
Malathaat is owned by Shadwell Stable, which is now overseen by Sheikha Hissa Hamdan Al Maktoum, the eldest daughter of the late Sheikh Hamdan, who founded the racing and breeding operation. Its vice-president and general manager Rick Nichols watched the race in Kentucky.
“Sheikha Hissa said that her heart sank when Malathaat stumbled at the gate,” said Nichols. “Other than that, she ran a fantastic race, and Johnny rode her perfectly.”
With farm manager Greg Clarke and assistant farm manager Jonny Smyth, Nichols selected the Stonestreet-bred filly from the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale for Sheikh Hamdan to inspect.
“She was absolutely gorgeous,” said Nichols of the daughter of Dreaming of Julia, a multiple graded stakes winner. “I knew as soon as she walked out that Sheikh Hamdan would love her.”
“He had a habit of licking his thumb and folding down the catalog page when he saw a horse he liked,” Nichols continued. “He was a very good horseman, and he knew instantly if he was looking at a good horse. If he really liked one, he wouldn’t look at it very long, and it drove consignors crazy, because they thought he wasn’t interested. It was just the opposite.
“Whenever a good-looking horse would come out, I’d turn to Greg and Jon and say, ‘This one’s a thumb-licker.'”
Shadwell paid $1.05 million for her, a price that Nichols expected.
“With that pedigree and her conformation, there was no doubt,” he said.
The win on Saturday is Pletcher’s third in the Alabama; he won it in 2013 with Princess of Sylmar and the following year with Stopchargingmaria. Velazquez has won the race four times, the first one in 1996 on Yanks Music .
“Johnny’s as good as he’s ever been. I didn’t really instruct him too much,” said Pletcher. “And she’s as good as we’ve ever had. To watch her train in the morning, to see some of the stuff she does, she really gives you a lot of confidence.”
River Bend Farm Inc., Austin Musselman & Janie Musselman