Labor Day weekend marks the closing days of the exciting summer racing on both coasts — Saratoga in New York and Del Mar in California. And Labor Day weekend also marks exciting action from the juvenile ranks with the first Grade 1s for the newly minted crop of potential superstars.
The main event at Del Mar on Saturday is the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante (GI) for fillies, which has been carded the day’s seventh race. Contested at seven furlongs since 1993, it is unequivocally the race the big connections want to win at the end of the summer before heading back to real life about 100 miles north.
The heat wave that has plagued the Southern California area is still in full force and it is expected to be warmer than usual in Del Mar over the weekend, with highs in the mid-80s. It’s been fast and firm all meet and the final weekend is expected to continue the trend.
Since it was first contested in 1951, some very familiar filly names made it to the Del Mar Debutante winner’s circle, including Terlingua (1978), who is better known as the dam of the great sire Storm Cat; the ill-fated champion Landaluce (1982); Sharp Cat (1996), a multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire; Chilukki (1999), who would go on to win the division’s Eclipse Award that year; and many more.
But since Brave Raj, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) winner cruised home to win the Debutante under Laffit Pincay Jr. in 1984, some historically significant girls have won the race before going on to win on Racing’s Championship Day, including Halfbridled (2003), Sweet Catomine (2004), Stardom Bound (2008), She’s a Tiger (2013), the recently retired Songbird (2015) and Union Strike a year ago. Also last year, eventual Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fillies winner and juvenile fillies champion Champagne Room produced a third-place finish.
This year, eight are expected to go postward, including the Sorrento Stakes (GII) winner Spectator, five maiden winners facing fellow winners for the first time and one who has yet to reach the winner’s circle.
Spectator won the Sorrento by 5 ¼ lengths with an impressive off-the-pace performance and showed extra distance is probably in her wheelhouse. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Jimmy Creed also posted some solid figures, both in speed and pace, and has been training expertly over the Del Mar surface, posting three nice workouts since her last race. Phil D’Amato trains the filly, who will likely get a nice pace to run at in the lane, and jockey Jamie Theriot returns. She doesn’t need to improve much to reach the winner’s circle again.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is narrowing the gap on fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas’ record of nine winners in this race by looking for his eighth tally with Debbie Lanni’s filly Just A Smidge. The gray daughter of Into Mischief was as professional as they come in her debut, winning a Del Mar maiden by 1 ¼ lengths after a slow break and off-the-pace performance. She earned a nice BRISnet speed figure of 93 for that effort, which, if repeated, makes her a tough candidate here. She’s training out of her skin, judging by the five works she’s posted leading into this race (including nice bullets in her last two) and a clean trip under jockey Rafael Bejarano may be all she needs.
Poetic, who is from the first crop of graded winner Violence and out of the good Cal-bred stakes-winning Wygod mare Smooth Performer (by Benchmark) is, perhaps, the new hope for owner Rick Porter after the recent retirement of his champion Songbird. The dark bay or brown filly is in the capable hands of Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, who knows a thing or two about a good filly thanks to some notable names from his stable like Beholder, Halfbridled and Phone Chatter, so knowing how conservative Mandella is, it’s safe to say this one wouldn’t be running if her connections weren’t prepared for a win. The $220,000 Keeneland September yearling posted some nice figures in her debut and a nice come-from-behind style that will benefit her in the early stages of the juvenile races as they head down the road to the Breeders’ Cup. Mike Smith rides and the pair will break from the far outside.
Gas Station Sushi owns a field-high last-race BRISnet Speed figure of 96 and is a dangerous threat for the win. She’s never been much of a morning glory, so it’s hard to judge how well she’s been training based on works alone, but the scuttlebutt has been that she’s looked exceptional for trainer Richard Baltas since that maiden score three weeks ago. A repeat of her debut can put her squarely in the winner’s circle with a performance on the lead or just off it under high-percentage jockey Corey Nakatani.
Piedi Bianchi hails from the deep Doug O’Neill barn and comes off a nice maiden score where she posted some solid figures from just off the pace. The Indiana-bred daughter of Overanalyze is probably a must-use for any exotics.
Moonshine Memories and Gabriellelizabeth are solid fillies who may be best judged with an extra look in the paddock. Both will likely be sent right for the lead from the break and, quite frankly, both are talented enough to post a mild upset with clean trips.
Dancing Belle is another maiden from the powerful Keith Desormeaux stable and we’ve all learned to never leave one of these types from this barn out of the exotics in stakes company.