By Richard Rosenblatt
A brief stumble at the start by Malathaat was unsettling, but a flawless ride by Hall of Famer John Velazquez helped produce an emphatic victory in the $600,000 Alabama Stakes (G1) on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
A field of seven broke from the gate on an overcast and rainy day at the Spa, and Malathaat – the 1-2 favorite – bobbled slightly and dropped into last place. By the first turn, though, the daughter of Curlin had settled into contention (fifth) in the middle of the tight pack. By the time the field turned for home, Johnny V had Malathaat passing the leaders and going on for a 1 ½-length victory.
The 1 ¼-mile Alabama was billed as a rematch between Malathaat and Maracuja, who pulled off the biggest surprise of the meet so far with a head victory over the previously unbeaten Malathaat in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) on July 24.
With her win in the Alabama, considered among the most prestigious races for 3-year-old fillies, Malathaat ($3.10 for a $2 win bet) is 6-for-7 for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher.
“She’s as good as we’ve ever had,’’ said Pletcher, who has trained some of the best fillies and mares over the past 25 years, including Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Rags to Riches, two-time champion Ashado, and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner Stopchargingmaria.
In 2021, Malathaat has victories in the three top 3-year-old filly races in the U.S. – the Ashland (G1), Kentucky Oaks (G1) and now the Alabama.
Malathaat, owned by Shadwell Stable, was bumped at the start of the Kentucky Oaks on April 30, but won that one, too, by a neck.
As for Saturday, Pletcher said the bobble “certainly added some drama to it.
“Obviously, we hoped she’d get away clean, but I didn’t instruct Johnny too much today because he had a better post here (post 6). It made me a little nervous, but she recovered quickly and put herself in a good position on the first turn.”
Coming out of the far turn, it seemed as if Velazquez had to urge on his filly a bit to move up to the three leaders – Played Hard, Will’s Secret and Army Wife.
“When he asked her to move (up) her position, she would,’’ Pletcher said. “She is an extremely intelligent horse. She loves the game. I think she kind of likes playing with horses; she kind of identifies a target, and once she gets to the target, she kind of thinks ‘next game.’’’
And with that, Malathaat took command, with Clairiere rallying for second. Army Wife was third, followed by Will’s Secret, Played Hard, Crazy Beautiful, and Maracuja, who never seriously challenged and came up empty in the stretch.
The winning time was 2:02.59.
With the win, Malathaat earned $330,000 to boost her career earnings to $1,555,510. She was purchased for $1,050,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
In the CCAO, Malathaat ran a what looked like a winning race, but Pletcher explains why it was a tough task to overcome.
“It was key (having a target in the Alabama). Last time, it was difficult to figure out the right tactics and we kind of got tag teamed, as you’d expect to be in a prohibitive-favorite situation. Today, we drew a better post, and we were able to let her find her rhythm and she showed why she’s the best 3-year-old filly in the country.”
Velazquez is now a four-time Alabama winner.
“Last time, there was no speed at all,’’ he said referring to the CCAO. “So, we made a decision to go to the first turn and if she was on the lead, then she was on the lead. She was on the lead, and everybody chased us. Today, it was easier. The speed showed up. I saved the ground in the first turn. I didn’t chase. I knew I was comfortable where I was, and she did it for me.”
Pletcher said he will confer with owners on the next stop for Malathaat, but the Breeder’s Cup at Del Mar is the goal.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.