Mary K. Grum’s Athena, the longest-shot in the field at 18-1, sat off the early pace set by 4-5 favorite Diva’s Express and rallied wide to inch clear inside the final sixteenth of a mile and beat I’m a Looker by 1 ½ lengths in Saturday’s seventh running of the $66,240 Roxelana Overnight Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Trained by Helen Pitts-Blasi and ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., Athena ran six furlongs over a fast main track in 1:09.67.
Diva Express, dead-heat winner of the $100,000 Winning Colors on May 28 with I’m a Looker, led the field of seven fillies and mares most of the way through swift fractions of :21.64, :44.86 and 56.82. The pace began to take its toll on the leader and the field bunched at the head of the stretch with Athena finding her best stride in the clear on the outside. The eventual winner drew even at the eighth pole and grabbed the lead with a sixteenth of a mile to run on her way to the victory.
“Our filly broke sharp enough to put us where we wanted to be and she travelled well and turning for home we had enough horse to hold them off,” Hernandez said.
The triumph was worth $40,800 and boosted Athena’s bankroll to $229,986 with a record of 13-5-0-2 that includes a victory in last December’s $100,000 Thirty Eight Go Go over one mile at Laurel.
Athena was cross-entered to run in Saturday’s $100,000 Chicago Handicap (Grade III) over seven furlongs on Arlington Park’s Polytrack surface – a race won by Sarah Sis – but opted for the Roxelana over her home track.
“I’m so proud of her,” Pitts-Blasi said. “It was a hard decision to make. I didn’t know what to do really. You could kind of go both ways. We could get on a van and ship up to Chicago and see if she likes the Polytrack or you walk out of your own stall and see if she likes to sprint at a track that has a long stride. I was worried about the distance, that was my main concern but I was hoping that it would play out for her.”
Athena is a 4-year-old daughter by 2007 Kentucky Derby-winner Street Sense out of the Rock of Gibraltar (IRE) mare Race Rocks (IRE) and was bred in Kentucky by Gary L. Chervenell.
Athena returned $38.20, $10.80 and $6.20. I’m a Looker, the 9-5 second betting choice who encountered some trouble between rivals in upper stretch and lacked a clear path in the final furlong under Robby Albarado, returned $3.80 and $2.80 and finished three-quarters of a length in front of Ramona’s Wildcat who paid $6.80 to show under Shaun Bridgmohan.
“Probably would have got up there,” Albarado said of I’m a Looker. “A nice filly won though so I’m not going to take anything away from her.”
Diva Express, Milam, Lunar Gaze and Pretty Fancy completed the order of finish. Carolina Jasmine, Stradivarius and Kathballu (runner-up to Sarah Sis in the Chicago Handicap) were scratched.
The Roxelana annually honors the crack female sprinter who won seven of 11 starts and $264,726 between 2000-03 for owner/breeder William Landes III and trainer William “Blackie” Huffman.
Racing at Churchill Downs continues Sunday with a 10-race program that begins at 12:45 p.m. (all times Eastern). There is a $654,191 carryover in the Single 6 Jackpot, which covers Races 5-10 starting at 2:43 p.m. Sunday at Churchill Downs doubles as Family Adventure Day Presented by Kroger with a wide range of activities for kids including pony rides, a petting zoo, inflatables, face painting and stick horse races. Also, members of the Louisville City FC soccer team will be on hand for autographs and to meet fans and parents from 12-2 p.m.
BRIAN HERNANDEZ JR., jockey of ATHENA (winner): “It was a big win for the Grums, especially since Mr. Grum is sick right now so that means a lot to be able to win a race like that for him, and we just had a great trip. Our filly broke sharp enough to put us where we wanted to be and she travelled well and turning for home we had enough horse to hold them off. Anytime you go in riding some live horses like today and being able to win a race like this for Helen (Pitts-Blasi) means a lot. It does a lot for the connections because she was nervous about the race and when the filly came into the race she didn’t know what to do with her. Evidently she made the right call.”
HELEN PITTS-BLASI, trainer of ATHENA (winner): “I’m so proud of her. It was a hard decision to make. I didn’t know what to do really. You could kind of go both ways. We could get on a van and ship up to Chicago and see if she likes the Polytrack or you walk out of your own stall and see if she likes to sprint at a track that has a long stride. I was worried about the distance, that was my main concern but I was hoping that it would play out for her.”
ROBBY ALBARADO, jockey of I’M A LOOKER (runner-up): “Probably would have got up there. A nice filly won though so I’m not going to take anything away from her.”
JULIEN LEPAROUX, jockey of DIVA EXPRESS (fourth as 4-5 beaten favorite): “She was just really keen today and just flattened out at the end. You expect that I guess. She went pretty well and then she got pressured pretty early, but she tried.”