Asmussen Does A+ Job With ‘Miss A’

Steve Asmussen

Steve Asmussen

She was gone for so long that many racing fans and observers wondered if we’d ever see her again, but unbeaten champion My Miss Aurelia is back in the game and likely to be one of the brightest U.S. stars heading into the international competition of the Breeders’ Cup in early November.

My Miss Aurelia got the vote from this corner as the most impressive performer in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships. She dominated her rivals in a three-length romp in the Grey Goose Juvenile Fillies to complete a perfect 2-year-old campaign and earn the Eclipse Award, presented to the nation’s champion 2-year-old female.

Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton’s star loomed as a heavy favorite for the 2012 Kentucky Oaks, but disappeared from the radar screen following a shin injury suffered after Breeders’ Cup triumph. Her name was absent from the roster of Kentucky Oaks nominees in the spring and she had no published workouts when Brereton C. Jones’ Believe You Can won the nation’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies on the eve of the Kentucky Derby.

My Miss Aurelia did turn in a couple of works in May at the training center at Central Kentucky’s Vinery before she returned to Asmussen’s barn at Churchill Downs in the second week. Her racing career resumed in early August in a minor stakes race at Saratoga, where she overcame a poor start and rolled to a three-length victory.

But her star truly regained its luster last weekend, when Asmussen’s star faced Godolphin Racing’s Questing in the $1 million Cotillion, a Grade I race at Philadelphia’s Parx Racing (formerly Philadelphia Park). The latter, who finished fifth to My Miss Aurelia in the Juvenile Fillies last fall, had soared to the top of the 3-year-old filly division in My Miss Aurelia’s absence with dominant back-to-back Grade I victories in Saratoga’s Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama.

The Cotillion attracted only four fillies, but it was essentially a match race. Questing, who has become a front-running force since she forsook turf racing for dirt and clicked off three straight wins on the new surface for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, cruised to the front in the 1 1/16-mile race. The heavy 2-5 favorite carved out easy fractions of :50.04 for the half-mile and 1:14.72 for six furlongs, with My Miss Aurelia and jockey Corey Nakatani tracking in second. The latter moved to challenge on the far turn, the two fillies looked each other in the eye at the top of the stretch and were inseparable in the run to the finish. My Miss Aurelia surged late and won by a head.

My Miss Aurelia’s spotless record improved to six wins in as many races and her earnings surpassed the $2 million mark. And the heart-pounding finish added some much-need drama to an American-racing scene, still smarting from career-ending injuries to 3-year-old stars like Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags.

My Miss Aurelia and Questing, provided both remain healthy over the next six weeks, will renew their nascent rivalry in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. They will likely be joined in the starting gate by defending winner Royal Delta from Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s barn and It’s Tricky, another Godolphin star trained by McLaughlin.  Another strong presence could be Awesome Feather, who has raced sparingly since her victory in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs, but recently pushed her career record to 10-for-10 with an 11 ¼-length victory for trainer Chad Brown in a small stakes race at Belmont Park.

Unless Frankel – the unbeaten British wonder hailed by many as the best to ever run in Europe – makes an unexpected trip to Santa Anita, the Ladies’ Classic seems a cinch to be the most-anticipated event of the two-day Breeders’ Cup.

High praise is due to Asmussen, a two-time winner of the Eclipse Award that honors the top trainer in the U.S., for his work in getting My Miss Aurelia ready for her Breeders’ Cup bid. She should move forward from the Cotillion, which again was just her second race since early November, and poised for a top effort against that tough field at Santa Anita.

My Miss Aurelia.

My Miss Aurelia.

Give Asmussen an A+ for his deft handling of the still-perfect Miss A.

“I am just very proud of her,” Asmussen said after the Cotillion. “I obviously love the outcome and she showed what a good mare she is.”

Admirers of Questing also have reason to anticipate a rematch in California. She carried 124 pounds in the Cotillion, seven more than the winner’s 117-pound impost, because of the allowance conditions of the race. And McLaughlin was among the many who decried the condition of the Parx track as a possible factor in Questing’s loss.

“Questing ran a huge race giving seven pounds to a champion on a very deep and dry track, which was really terrible,” he said.

Females have earned “Horse of the Year” honors in each of the last three years, with Rachel Alexandra (2009), Zenyatta (2010) and Havre de Grace (2011) earning the gold statuette that accompanies that honor. It’s not out of the question that the run could be extended to an unprecedented four years.

I’ll Have Another, gone since his retirement in June, continues to lead the 3-year-old division, and the best older horse in America appears to be the versatile Wise Dan, who could run in either the Breeders’ Cup Mile on turf or on dirt in the $5 million Classic. An emphatic win in the race of his choice might be enough to tip the wide-open Horse of the Year race in his direction, but a loss throws the spotlight back to the ladies.

Of that group, it would seem that My Miss Aurelia, Questing or Royal Delta would have the best shot to extend the string of females honored as America’s top horse. The winner would probably need an emphatic triumph to grab that honor in this wide-open year, but any filly or mare good enough to grab the top spot in what is shaping up as the highlight of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup would deserve a long look from voters when time for year-end championship balloting arrives.

Photos by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs