SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— Bo Hirsch’s Ce Ce is following a similar script to the one that earned her a year-end championship in 2021, the first of trainer Michael McCarthy’s career. The only change in the plot McCarthy would like to make for 2022 is a victory in Sunday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina Handicap at Saratoga Race Course.
The 44th running of the seven-furlong Ballerina for fillies and mares 3-and-up serves as a ‘Win and You’re In’ qualifier to the Grade 1, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint November 5 at Keeneland, and headlines a 10-race program that includes the $135,000 Better Talk Now for 3-year-olds going a mile on the grass in Race 8.
Now 6, Ce Ce won last year’s Grade 2 Princess Rooney at Gulfstream Park to earn a berth in the Breeders’ Cup, then ran third behind Gamine in the Ballerina before reeling off wins in the Grade 3 Chillingworth at Santa Anita and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar, beating Gamine to unseat her as North America’s top female sprinter.
“We’re kind of following the same pattern we followed last year. I thought she ran well at Saratoga last year and I’m looking forward to having another crack at it again this year,” the southern California-based McCarthy said. “She obviously ran into a very good filly in Gamine but she showed up, and I think she’s doing just as well this year if not better than she was last year at this time.”
Impressive as she was winning last year’s Princess Rooney, Ce Ce was even more so last month in a 6 1/2-length romp July 2 that matched her career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 101. It was the 10th win from 20 lifetime starts for the daughter of Elusive Quality to go along with nearly $2.3 million in purse earnings.
“She’s just been a model of consistency. It seems like she brings her ‘A’ game every time, even when things are up against her. Her race at Gulfstream last start was just fantastic,” McCarthy said. “She puts a lot into her training. She knows when it’s race day. She’s just special.”
One deviation McCarthy made for Ce Ce this year is sending her to Oaklawn Park for a pair of starts in the spring. She captured the Grade 2 Azeri March 12 and was third to champion older mare Letruska in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom April 23, a race Ce Ce won in 2020.
“It was kind of circumstance,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t see anything here that kind of suited us earlier in the year. The Azeri was out there, [and] it was at a racetrack she was familiar with. When she ran as well as she did, it just made some sense to go right back to the Apple Blossom.
“She’s got a wonderful constitution. She takes everything in stride,” he added. “Traveling doesn’t seem to have any adverse reaction on her. She knows what the job is all about.”
Regular rider Victor Espinoza has the call on Ce Ce, who drew the rail in the field of seven at topweight of 125 pounds.
“She’s just been fantastic for us and for what she’s done – Eclipse champion, Breeders’ Cup champion, big races across the country. She’s kept herself relevant for basically 3-1/2 seasons now,” McCarthy said. “I’ve said it before, we felt my colleagues being able to experience having a mare like her at least once in their lifetime, it’s certainly not lost on us how good she is.”
Frank Fletcher Racing Operations Inc.’s Lady Rocket will be chasing her fifth career stakes win, third in graded company and first in a Grade 1 in the Ballerina. The front-running 5-year-old mare exits a gate-to-wire 2 3/4-length triumph in the Grade 3 Chicago June 25 at Churchill Downs under Ricardo Santana Jr., who returns to ride from post position 4 at 120 pounds.
“She’s doing great. She’s training really, really well. She likes Saratoga. We need to break through with a Grade 1 win, and this looks like a good opportunity,” trainer Brad Cox said. “It’s a good race and she has to step up, but I think she has the ability so we’ll see how it goes.”
Lady Rocket won the only previous time she raced at Saratoga, a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight in her August 2020 unveiling. She won the Pumpkin Pie at Belmont Park and Grade 3 Go for Wand at Aqueduct Racetrack to cap 2021 and set the pace in both the Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland and Belmont’s Grade 2 Ruffian to open this year before respectively finishing fourth and third.
“She’s a good filly. She’s won two graded stakes and hopefully we can pick up a Grade 1. We think she’s a Grade 1 talent,” Cox said. “We’ve always liked her. We thought she was one of our best 2-year-old fillies but she had a setback and it took us some time to get her to the races. She showed us right away as a 2-year-old that she was a good horse. She won her first couple and it took a little while to get the first stakes win with her but once she did she was able to kind of break through and be competitive.”
Michael Imperio, Medallion Racing, Sofia Soares, Vincent Scuderi and Parkland Thoroughbreds’ Bella Sofia is looking to bounce back in the Ballerina after running third as the favorite in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss July 27. The 4-year-old Awesome Patriot filly won the Grade 1 Longines Test last summer at Saratoga and began this year with victories in the Grade 3 Vagrancy Handicap May 14 and Grade 2 Bed o’ Roses June 10, both at Belmont.
“She came back from two big races at Belmont and hopefully she can give us another big race,” trainer Rudy Rodriguez said. “I’m happy the way she is. She came back good from the last race and she worked a couple times, very nice. She seems happy and she’s eating good, and that’s all we can ask for.”
Bella Sofia will carry 123 pounds including jockey Luis Saez from post position 5.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott entered the trio of Caramel Swirl, Obligatory and Travel Column. Godolphin homebred Caramel Swirl will be making just her second start of the year after winning an optional claiming allowance May 20 at Belmont racing first time since a victory in the Grade 2 Raven Run last October at Keeneland.
OXO Equine’s Travel Column hadn’t raced in more than a year when she captured a seven-furlong optional claiming allowance June 29 at Churchill Downs in her first start for Mott. The Frosted filly won the Grade 2 Golden Rod in 2020 and Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks in 2021 but went to the sidelines after fifths in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and Grade 1 Acorn.
“She did everything she needed to do in her comeback. She ran very well. We weren’t surprised,” Mott said. “Her works have been good and she’s doing good.”
Juddmonte’s Obligatory, a homebred daughter of two-time Horse of the Year and 2014 Hall of Famer Curlin, began this year with victories in the Grade 3 Hurricane Bertie at Gulfstream Park and Grade 1 Derby City Distaff May 7 at Churchill Downs, the latter at the Ballerina distance. Last out she came up a half-length short of Bella Sofia in the Bed o’ Roses.
“She continues to do well. One of her biggest races was she ran second in the last one. There was no pace. It was one of those situations where Bella Sofia kind of had everything her own way,” Mott said.
“She’s pretty versatile but I think she’s better going one turn, seven-eighths to a mile,” he added. “I think Caramel Swirl is probably the same way and Travel Column, I think she’ll run on but we wanted to try her in the Ballerina with it being a Grade 1 and see how she does. She might be one later on that wants to be stretched out.”
Caramel Swirl will break from post position 3 at 119 pounds with Junior Alvarado, while Jose Ortiz rides Obligatory from post position 2 at 123 pounds and Tyler Gaffalione will be on Travel Column from post position 6 at 119 pounds.
Completing the field is First Row Partners and Team Hanley’s Goodnight Olive, a 4-year-old daughter of Hall of Famer Ghostzapper that takes a four-race win streak into her stakes debut for trainer Chad Brown. She is 2-for-2 this year, winning optional claiming allowances at seven and 6 1/2 furlongs by 9 1/4 combined lengths, the latter coming August 7 at Saratoga.
Goodnight Olive drew outermost post 7 with Irad Ortiz Jr. at 118 pounds.
The Ballerina is slated as Race 9 on Sunday’s program. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.
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Main photo: Ce Ce defends her title in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney (Lauren King)