SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Thursday’s $150,000 Galway was a rematch between Coronation Cup runner-up Poppy Flower and winner Empress Tigress, but it was Arnmore Thoroughbreds’ Poppy Flower that came out on top this time around in the 5 1/2-furlong Mellon turf sprint for sophomore fillies.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the daughter of Lea scored the second stakes victory of her career and second win since joining Mott in May after ending her juvenile campaign in October under the care of Wesley Ward. Now boasting a 3-for-4 on-the-board record for her new conditioner, Poppy Flower has made another strong showing in stakes company this year after taking the Stormy Blues earlier this spring at Churchill Downs.
Emerging from the inside post with returning jockey Jose Ortiz up, Poppy Flower broke quickly but relaxed along the rail and eased back to the rear of the field. Empress Tigress, with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard, ran up to sit just a half-length off the pace set by Delmona through an opening quarter-mile in 22.25 seconds over the firm turf.
With positions largely unchanged through a half-mile in 44.87, Empress Tigress overtook the lead as the field of nine fillies straightened for the drive home. Poppy Flower, who was swung to the outside by Ortiz, charged with a furious turn of foot down the center of the racetrack to inhale a strong Empress Tigress and tiring Delmona to score the win by one length in a final time of 1:02.09.
Empress Tigress bested Delmona by a half-length for place honors, with Makin My Move finishing one length behind them to round out the superfecta. Have A Good Day, Breeze Easy, Half Is Enough, Derrynane and Artos completed the order of finish. Benbang, Freedom Speaks and main-track only entrant Mystic Eyes were scratched.
Last out in the Coronation Cup, both Poppy Flower and Empress Tigress ran nearly identical races to their Galway efforts, but the former came up just shy by a half-length.
Ortiz said Empress Tigress faced less pressure in the Coronation Cup where she was able to take a 3 1/2-length advantage at the stretch call.
“I think she [Poppy Flower] ran good, but the winner, Empress Tigress, is a nice filly also. That day, she got away with a nice lead – easy,” said Ortiz. “But today, the two-horse [Delmona] came out running and paid the price in the end for Empress Tigress. Nothing against her – if she got an easy lead today, she probably would have won again. She ran a good race and is a very nice filly also. The race played different today.”
Mott said he had confidence in Ortiz to ride the race as it unfolded.
“I gave him no instructions. He rode her last time and rode her well,” said Mott. “We thought maybe we’d be a little bit closer to the pace today, and she broke well and she was up there for a few strides but she just wanted to settle and he let her do what she wanted to do. He let her place herself and sometimes you’re better off letting the horse do what they want to do rather than make them do something we want to make them do.
“It was an honest enough pace, or they wouldn’t have been that far in front of them,” added Mott. “When you’re in this kind of race and you come from behind, it’s all about the trip. We know she can run, but she got the good trip.”
Ortiz said he decided to swing to the middle of the track to give her the best chance to run her race.
“I could have waited longer to see if something opened up inside, but I felt like there was a blanket of horses and I didn’t want to be a hero,” said Ortiz. “I knew I had a lot of horse underneath of me, and she always finishes well, so I wanted to have a clean run home. I didn’t want to have any excuses. She came home flying.”
Returning $10.40 on a $2 win wager, Poppy Flower boosted her total purse earnings to $340,520.
Jonathan Thomas, trainer of Empress Tigress, said his filly was just second best on the day.
“I thought Johnny rode her beautiful,” said Thomas. “I thought she had a nice trip where she was able to relax and pounce. The other filly just had a little more turn of foot.”
Velazquez said he Empress Tigress was valiant in defeat.
“Perfect trip. No complaints. Settled well and the other horse went to the lead and I sat next to him. I tried to save something for the end,” said Velazquez. “Obviously, the winner came running last time and almost got me so I was very conscious of that and hopefully I could save a little more horse and have a fight, but the winner was much the best today. Absolutely [she’s maturing] and she’s doing everything well. The winner ran a huge race.”
Live racing resumes Friday at Saratoga with a 10-race card, featuring a trio of $125,000 New York-bred handicaps in the John Morrissey [Race 3], the Union Avenue [Race 6], and the Evan Shipman [Race 8]. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.
By Mary Eddy
Main Photo by NYRA/Coglianese