Barbara Hunter’s homebred Keertana became the first female to defeat males in the Grade III, $111,200 Louisville Handicap when she narrowly prevailed in a nail-biting, three-way photo for the win Saturday at Churchill Downs. The 5-year-old mare, ridden by Jose Lezcano, hung a nose on Bearpath to triumph in the 74th running of the 1 ½-mile turf race at Churchill Downs. Pacesetter Guys Reward was another nose back in third.
With the natural eye, it appeared that any one of the three could be declared the winner, but the American Teletimer photo revealed that Keertana got the bob and had her nose down at the wire. She covered the turf marathon in 2:33.61 over “firm” going, and banked $67,567 for the win as the 3-2 betting favorite.
“If she ran third, that would have been okay,” said winning trainer Tom Proctor. “I was just enjoying watching her fight for it. If you don’t enjoy finishes like that then you’re in trouble in this business.”
The class of Keertana and the performances by her credible challengers Bearpath and Guys Reward were undeniable. Guys Reward sprinted clear shortly after the gates were sprung but his rider, Miguel Mena, throttled down his mount and took the field through its initial homestretch run in a dawdling pace of :25.68 for the first quarter mile, :51.93 for the half, 1:19.27 for six furlongs and a loitering 1:45.82 for the mile. The pack, reduced to seven after a trio of late scratches, wasn’t separated by more than five lengths through the opening mile.
Around the final turn, Mena slipped Guys Reward some rein and asked the 4-year-old for his best sprint home, but Keertana and Lezcano, who traveled in a boxed-in fourth through the early stages of the race, quickly darted through an opening on the inside hedge to draw even with the leader. As the two leaned on one another head-and-head down the stretch, Bearpath, with Freddie Lenclud up, made a late rally on the outside only to fall a nose short. In midstretch, the runner-up had to briefly alter his course on two occasions – once at the eighth pole and another with 100 yards to run – around a lugging out El Crespo, who finished another 2 ¼ lengths back in fourth under Corey Lanerie.
Musketier-GER, the 8-5 second betting choice, was fifth and was followed by Memorial Maniac and defending champ Free Fighter. Dark Cove, Formulaforsuccess and Simmard were scratched.
“It was a great race,” Lezcano said. “I wanted to take her to the outside because I thought that would be best for her. The grass was softer on the hedge and I wanted her to go outside, but I really didn’t have a choice and had to go up the inside. When we hit the wire, I didn’t know if she won, or finished second, or finished third. I didn’t know we won until they put it up on the screen. I’m very happy. She’s a nice mare.”
Keertana paid $5, $3 and $2.80. Bearpath, runner-up in the Louisville Handicap for a second consecutive year, returned $5.20 and $4.20. Guys Reward paid $4.40.
Keertana, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Johar out of the Storm Cat mare Motokiks, collected her fifth Grade III stakes win and third this year, adding to victories in the Very One at Gulfstream Park and Bewitch at Keeneland. Overall, she’s won 11 of 25 starts and is $18,062 shy of the million-dollar mark at $981,938. Last fall at Churchill Downs, she nearly pulled a 31-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf but fell a half-length short of Shared Account and Midday.
“I’m just tickled for her,” Proctor said. “She’s a neat mare and I’m just happy to ride on her coattails. Once horses like her leave the barn, you can’t replace them. That’s already her third graded-stakes win of the year. That’s a hell of a year!”
Racing at Churchill Downs continues Sunday with a 10-race program that begins at 12:45 p.m. ET.
LOUISVILLE HANDICAP QUOTES
Jose Lezcano, jockey of Keertana, winner: “It was a great race. I wanted to take her to the outside because I thought that would be best for her. The grass was softer on the hedge and I wanted her to go outside, but I really didn’t have a choice and had to go up the inside. When we hit the wire, I didn’t know if she won, or finished second, or finished third. I didn’t know we won until they put it up on the screen. I’m very happy. She’s a nice mare.”
Tom Proctor, trainer of Keertana, winner: “If she ran third, that would have been okay. I was just enjoying watching her fight for it. If you don’t enjoy finishes like that then you’re in trouble in this business.
“I ran her in this spot because I didn’t want to ship her. I actually thought it was a conservative move to keep her here and run against the boys. This might be one of the first times I’ve ever run a filly or mare against males, but every time you ship one and then have to bring them back it’s really like making them run two races so I wanted to run her here.
“I’m just tickled for her (Keertana). She’s a neat mare and I’m just happy to ride on her coattails. Once horses like her leave the barn, you can’t replace them. That’s already her third graded-stakes win of the year. That’s a hell of a year!
“She ran a great race and hopefully she’ll come out of it good and we’ll get to have fun again. The Breeders’ Cup (Filly & Mare Turf) is the long-term goal. But that’s still awhile away from now.”
Freddie Lenclud, jockey of Bearpath, second: “If the horse at the eighth pole doesn’t come out in front of me and I have to check, he probably would have done it. It’s just part of racing. But he ran great today. We know now that he likes to be off the pace. We tried to see if he would be comfortable being up in the race, but he doesn’t like that. He just likes to be at the back, and that’s how he is.”
Q: What did you think at the finish? “I wasn’t sure. I knew it was going to be really tight. If the finish had been two strides later I would have won.”
Ian Wilkes, trainer of Bearpath, second: “He ran unbelievable. It was just a nose. I’m not unhappy. He just ran unbelievable, you know?
“You’re limited on your choices, but I want to go to the (Grade I) Man O’ War (at Belmont Park) with him.”
Miguel Mena, jockey of Guys Reward, third: “He ran awesome.”
Dale Romans, trainer of Guys Reward, third: “He ran hard. Miguel (Mena) did his job. He just walked him right along out there and he sprinted home. He tried to win. We wanted to be galloping. I didn’t care where he was, and he was galloping. Everything went perfect – we just missed the head bob.
“He loves it here. He loves to run – period.”