Thomas gets East Coast turf double with aces Empress Tigress and Benbang

July 17, 2022

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Trainer Jonathan Thomas successfully split his turf sprint aces Empress Tigress and Benbang to come away with stakes scores over the weekend.

On Friday, Augustin Stable’s Empress Tigress maintained her perfect record with a half-length score over a rallying Poppy Flower in the $150,000 Coronation Cup, a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint for sophomore fillies at Saratoga. One day later, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ Benbang, who scratched from the Coronation Cup, made every pole a winning one in the 5 1/2-furlong Blue Sparkler at Monmouth Park.

“We’re very fortunate that the plan we devised with our owners worked out well and both fillies showed up,” Thomas said. “It’s one of those really nice weekends. Especially with a lightly raced filly like Empress Tigress, but she’d shown enough in the talent department that it was worth trying.”

Empress Tigress, by Classic Empire, exited the outermost post 8 under Hall of Famer John Velazquez and tracked Mystic Eyes through swift splits of 21.77 seconds and 44.33 over the firm turf. Empress Tigress took command through the turn and opened up a 3 1/2-length advantage at the stretch call, staying on strong to secure the win in a final time of 1:01.70.

Thomas said he was impressed with how Empress Tigress galloped out despite the diminishing win margin.

“Second time out and especially when they win their maidens easily, they’re not quite as battle tested, so you don’t learn as much. You don’t know if they wait on a horse a little bit or if they’re getting a bit tired,” Thomas said. “She set serious fractions, so it’s legitimate that she might have come up for air a little bit late. The thing was, galloping out the filly that came to her late never really got by her. She never got her head in front.”

Thomas said he’s more than content to let the filly be a turf sprinter.

“I think it’s important not to get too clever,” Thomas said. “If a horse is doing something well, you just try to leave them alone until they’re not doing it well and then maybe they want more ground or a change of scenery. But I wouldn’t want to stray too far from the path right now from what she’s doing and that’s being a five-to-six furlong turf sprinter.”

Thomas said that Empress Tigress could harness her natural speed as she matures, if necessary.

“It’s not frantic speed. She just does what she was taught to do, and that’s to break fast,” Thomas said. “It’s organic speed. She was on the bridle going 44 and change.”

The $410,000 OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale purchase was bred in Kentucky by Springhouse Farm.

Benbang #1 ridden by jockey Albin Jimenez won the $100,000 Blue Sparkler Stakes at Monmouth Park July 16, 2022. Photo By Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

While Empress Tigress came with a hefty sales tag and lofty expectations, Benbang has emerged from relative obscurity to the delight of her trainer, who purchased her as a weanling for $4,000 at the 2019 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. The hard-trying bay was then sold for $65,000 at the 2021 OBS June 2-Year-Olds and Horses of Racing Age Sale to Aron Wellman’s Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.

Benbang graduated at first asking last summer at Saratoga in an off-the-turf maiden special weight before finishing off-the-board in the Grade 1 Spinaway which was won by eventual Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Echo Zulu.

She finished a close fourth in the six-furlong Stewart Manor in November over the Belmont turf after a troubled trip under Paco Lopez. Benbang has finished first or second in all three starts since, culminating in her Blue Sparkler score.

Bred in Kentucky by Tim Thornton, the Shanghai Bobby bay sprinted out of the inside post under Albin Jimenez in the Blue Sparkler and marked off splits of 22.49 and 44.89 over the firm going under pressure from Mac the Pee H Dee. Benbang put away the pressure and then staved off a challenge from Delmona to notch a one-length win in a final time of 1:02.82.

“She’s a deserving stakes winner,” Thomas said. “It was really cool seeing a filly like Benbang, who was discounted at every point of her life, win a stake.” 

Thomas said both fillies will come under consideration for the $150,000 Galway, a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint for sophomore fillies on August 11 at the Spa, although the listed $500,000 Music City at 6 1/2-furlongs at Kentucky Downs on September 11 would provide better spacing.

“I think when these fillies run super hard it might be hard to wheel them back that fast,” said Thomas regarding the Galway. “I find these turf sprint fillies leave nothing on the racetrack and they’re actually harder to get back quickly than horses that are route horses.”

Hard Love winning the 2021 edition of the Woodhaven at Aqueduct. (Joe Labozzetta)

Robert V. LaPenta, Augustin Stable and Madaket Stables’ Hard Love, winner of last year’s Woodhaven over the Big A turf, breezed a half-mile in 48.69 over the Oklahoma training turf Sunday in company with 4-year-old state-bred maiden winner War Terminator.

“He’s getting very close to a comeback. I thought he breezed very well this morning,” Thomas said. “He broke off sharp, laid into the bridle and breezed 48 and change without any real urging and galloped out nicely. He’s a horse that needs to be on the pace. He doesn’t have a wicked turn of foot, but he seems to have the ability to carry his speed on the grass.”

Hard Love, a 4-year-old Kitten’s Joy gelding, boasts a record of 5-3-1-0. He graduated at first asking over the Belmont turf in October 2020 and followed with a close second to Never Surprised one month later in the Central Park at Aqueduct.

The $200,000 OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training purchase won 2-of-3 starts last year, beginning with a prominent 1 1/4-length score over It’s a Gamble in the Woodhaven ahead of a determined head score over older company in a nine-furlong optional-claimer over the Belmont turf. He was last seen in July 2021 finishing seventh in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational, defeated 4 1/2-lengths by Bolshoi Ballet.

“He’s a big growthy horse and we didn’t think he was a Florida winter horse with the tight turns at Gulfstream, so it seemed like a good time to give him time off,” Thomas said. “With his conditions there was nowhere to run him, and we didn’t want to tackle huge stake off the layoff.”

Thomas said Hard Love, has breezed extensively at Monmouth Park since April, will target an allowance race at the end of the first Saratoga condition book.

NYRA Press Office
Photo of Empress Tigress winning the Coronation Cup by Janet Garaguso

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