SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— It hasn’t been the kind of summer to which trainer Rudy Rodriguez has become accustomed to at Saratoga Race Course, but Michael Imperio, Medallion Racing, Sofia Soares, Vincent Scuderi and Parkland Thoroughbreds’ Grade 1 winner Bella Sofia can change that in a big way in Sunday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina.
The seven-furlong Ballerina for fillies and mares 3-and-older is a ‘Win and You’re In’ qualifier to the Grade 1, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint November 5 at Keeneland. California invader Ce Ce, third in last year’s Ballerina during her Eclipse Award season as Champion Female Sprinter, heads the field of seven.
Since going out on his own in 2010, Rodriguez has won 136 races at Saratoga averaging 11 wins and nearly $714,000 in purse earnings. He has ranked in the top 10 in wins in 10 of his first 12 years, finishing third with 14 in 2018 and fourth with a career-best 15 in 2015. In 2017 and 2015 he topped $1 million in purse earnings for the meet.
Rodriguez registered his first winner this summer with Wudda U Think Now in the John Morrissey August 6, and won again with Mariah’s Fortune on Wednesday. His fewest number of wins at Saratoga is seven, coming in his first year.
Bella Sofia, who captured the Grade 1 Longines Test last summer during her 3-year-old campaign, ran third as the favorite in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss July 27. Rodriguez has nine seconds and eight thirds at Saratoga this summer, including Hot Peppers in the Grade 1 Longines Test. He was third with a pair of 2-year-olds, Please Baby July 23 and Moonflyer August 6, and fourth with Apple Picker in the Grade 3 Adirondack for 2-year-old fillies August 7.
In the Belmont Park spring-summer meet that preceded Saratoga, Rodriguez ranked fourth with 22 wins and fifth with nearly $1.4 million in purse earnings.
“We had a great meet at Belmont. All our horses ran big,” Rodriguez said. “I expected a little bit more from the babies we brought here, but they didn’t show up the way I thought. We have a couple tough beats where we could have been winners. But, everybody comes to play so you’ve got to keep playing. It’s tough.”
The lightly-raced Bella Sofia has been a tough customer for Rodriguez with six wins, one second and one third from just nine career starts. The Test was her first stakes win, followed by a victory in the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom and a fourth to Ce Ce in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She began this year with wins in the Grade 3 Vagrancy May 14 and Grade 2 Bed o’ Roses June 10, both at Belmont.
“She’s very nice, and we’re very, very happy to have her,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just enjoying the ride.”
In the six-furlong Honorable Miss, regular rider Luis Saez opted to keep Bella Sofia off the pace and ration her natural speed. She ran second through a quarter-mile in 22.72 seconds and a half in 45.87 but was passed by Frank’s Rockette and eventual winner Kimari entering the stretch and wound up beaten 6 1/4 lengths.
“Luis rode the race the way I thought he would ride it, but I guess she doesn’t want to take back. She broke good and Luis kind of took back and waited, and I don’t think she wanted to do that,” Rodriguez said. “To me, I thought that was the perfect spot to let her finish up good but by the three-eighths pole she looked like she was [done]. I’m not too sure what happened. Sunday, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll put [her] in the race and [they can] come and get [her]. No taking back.”
Saez will ride Bella Sofia back in the Ballerina from post position 5 at 123 pounds, two fewer than topweight Ce Ce.
“The other day, Luis asked me what I thought and I told him, ‘You’re in charge.’ I thought he rode him perfect,” Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen the way I thought it would happen and the other filly ran a huge, huge race, too. Those races are tough, so you can’t take anything away from her.”
Rodriguez also felt that Bella Sofia left some of her race behind after acting up in the paddock, similar to the way she did at Del Mar last fall in the Breeders’ Cup.
“I was kind of disappointed the way she ran at Del Mar. I know the race didn’t set up for us, but I don’t think she ran her race that day,” Rodriguez said. “She’s gotten bigger and stronger since last year. She acted up very bad in the paddock last time, so we schooled her in the paddock. You try to put all the pieces together and figure things out. I’ve been trying to do whatever I can to help her mentally. She acted up almost the same way at Del Mar, so I try to avoid that situation.”
Rodriguez said he hasn’t looked beyond Sunday’s race but would love to have Bella Sofia around as a 5-year-old in 2023 and, eventually, stretch her out beyond seven furlongs, a distance where she is 2-for-3 lifetime. The connections gave consideration to the one-mile Grade 3 Go for Wand last December at Aqueduct but passed.
“I haven’t talked to the owners about it yet, but hopefully they can keep her over here for next year. She’s a young, lightly-raced horse. Look at Ce Ce, she’s still running,” he said. “I believe she still has room to improve. If they let me, I would like to try her at one mile. Last year I wanted to try her in the mile race at Aqueduct, but we decided to give her a break.”
NYRA Press Office
Main photo: Bella Sofia wins the 2021 edition of the Grade 1 Test (NYRA/Coglianese)