With a disappointing journey to Southern California for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships behind her, Cristina’s Journey is back in the comfortable confines of Churchill Downs and is the morning line favorite to defeat 11 rivals in Saturday’s 71st running of the $200,000-added Golden Rod (Grade II) for 2-year-old fillies, the co-featured event on the Louisville track’s popular “Stars of Tomorrow II” program devoted exclusively to racing among 2-year-olds.
Owned by GSN Racing LLC, Cristina’s Journey will attempt to become just the eighth filly to sweep Churchill Downs’ latter year races for 2-year-old fillies, the Golden Rod and the $200,000-added Pocahontas (GII). A front-running triumph in the 1 1/16-mile Pocahontas on Sept. 6 made the daughter of Any Given Saturday the early leader in the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” point series that will determine the participants in the $1 million guaranteed Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), America’s premiere race for 2-year-old fillies, on Friday, May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Like the Pocahontas, the Golden Rod is a “Prep Season” race on the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” in which the Top 4 finishers will receive 10-4-2-1 points, respectively.
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has installed Cristina’s Journey as the 3-1 favorite in the large and competitive Golden Rod field.
The Golden Rod will share the spotlight on an 11-race “Stars of Tomorrow II” racing program as the co-featured event with the $200,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club (GII). Post time for the first race on the penultimate day of Churchill Downs’ weather-shortened 24-day Fall Meet is 12:40 p.m. (all times EST). Post time for the Golden Rod is scheduled for 4:35 p.m., while the Kentucky Jockey Club is set to get underway at 5:35 p.m.
The Dale Romans-trained Cristina’s Journey is a combination of talented young horse and a heartwarming backstory. She is named in honor Cristina Bahena, a 25-year employee in the Louisville-born trainer’s stable and the wife of assistant trainer Baldemar Bahena, and her long, and recently successful, quest for her dream of U.S. citizenship.
On the track, Cristina’s Journey’s performances likely conjured a few dreams among her connections when she won her first two starts by a combined 6 ½ lengths, including a 2 ¼-length triumph in the Pocahontas. She collected her “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points and earned a berth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita as that race was part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In Juvenile Fillies Division.”
The trip to California was more like a nightmare after Cristina’s Journey faltered after showing early speed and finished 11th of 12 behind Churchill Downs-based and D. Wayne Lukas-trained Take Charge Brandi in the Juvenile Fillies. She has had a pair of works over the Churchill Downs oval since her return and will get a new jockey on Saturday in Robby Albarado. She drew post five for the Golden Rod and, like every filly in the race, will carry 119 pounds.
Should Cristina’s Journey win the Golden Rod, she will be the first filly to sweep the Pocahontas and Golden Rod – Churchill Downs’ pair of graded races for juvenile fillies – since Anita Cauley’s On Fire Baby took both events in 2011. Others to capture the double were Weekend Surprise (1982), Flippers (1983), At the Half (1993), French Park (2005), Pure Clan (2006) and the Romans-trained Sassy Image (2009).
Romans also will saddle Zayat Stables LLC’s Jojo’s Memory in the Golden Rod. The daughter of Harlan’s Holiday was a 2 ½-length maiden winner in her second career start on Oct. 26 at Churchill Downs. Leading jockey Corey Lanerie has the mount on Jojo’s Memory, who drew post seven and stands at 20-1 in the Golden Rod morning line.
If Cristina’s Journey is not up to the task in the Golden Rod, top honors could go to Mary and Gary West’s West Coast Belle, who won Churchill Downs’ $58,000-added Rags to Riches Overnight Stakes on Oct. 26 to remain unbeaten in two races. The daughter of sizzling sire Tapit is trained by Wayne Catalano, whose breakout 2014 at Churchill Downs includes a tie with Steve Asmussen for the September Meet training title at the Louisville track. It was Catalano’s first Churchill Downs’ training title, and he enters the final four days of the Fall Meet tied atop the leaderboard with Mark Casse and Romans at nine wins apiece.
West Coast Belle will start from post eight under jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, who will attempt to win the Golden Rod for the second straight year after guiding Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Vexed to win the race in 2013.
Chicago-based No Fault of Mine ships to Churchill Downs for her stakes debut in the Golden Rod following an easy victory in her racing debut over the synthetic Polytrack surface at Arlington Park. The well-named daughter of 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) winner Blame won that seven-furlong race by 4 ½ lengths on Sept. 28.
Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. will ride No Fault of Mine from post two for trainer Chris Block, who has scored recent Thanksgiving Weekend stakes victories at Chruchill Downs. He scored an upset victory in the Falls City Handicap (GII) with Dundalk Dust in 2010, and one day later saddled Giant Oak, who was elevated to the top spot in the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) following the disqualification of Successful Dan.
Trainer Kenny McPeek will send a pair of fillies in the Golden Rod that includes Kathballu, a full sister to McPeek’s 2010 Golden Rod winner Kathmanblu. Both daughters of Bluegrass Cat out of the Devil’s Bag mare Abba Gold are owned by Five D Thoroughbreds.
Jockey Julien Leparoux will ride Kathballu, who scored an impressive 1 ½-length maiden victory at the Golden Rod distance of 1 1/16 miles in her most recent start. The fourth choice in Battaglia’s morning line at 6-1, Kathballu had finished sixth in her October debut at Keeneland. She will break from post 10.
McPeek’s other Golden Rod hope is I’m A Chatterbox, who won her debut at Keeneland but finished third in her first outing against winners in a Churchill Downs allowance race on Nov. 9. Chris Landeros will ride I’m a Chatterbox, who is owned by Grayson Farm breaks form post three.
The most experienced member of the Golden Rod field is Xpress Thoroughbreds LLC’s Simply Confection, who makes her eighth career start in Saturday’s race. Trained by veteran William “Jinks” Fires, the daughter of Candy Ride-ARG was the winner of a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs in her most recent start and was a distant runner-up to Golden Rod rival West Coast Belle in the Rags to Riches. She will be ridden by Jon Court, the trainer’s son-in-law, when she breaks from post four in search of her third career victory and her first stakes triumph.
The field for the 71st running of the Golden Rod from the rail out (with jockey and morning line odds) includes Carta de Oro (Jesus Castanon, 12-1), No Fault of Mine (Santana Jr., 9-2), I’m A Chatterbox (Landeros, 20-1) Simply Confection (Court, 8-1), Cristina’s Journey (Albarado, 3-1), Heart’s Song (Brian Hernandez Jr., 12-1), Jojo’s Melody (Lanerie, 20-1), West Coast Belle (Bridgmohan, 4-1), Martz (Didiel Osorio, 12-1), Kathballu (Leparoux, 6-1), Ancient Goddess-FR (Martin Garcia, 12-1) and Seeking Paradise (Rafael Hernandez, 30-1).