Hard Not to Like stakes claim as best older turf mare in Diana
When Speedway Stable purchased Hard Not to Like for $1.5 million at last November's Keeneland Sale, you might have thought that the already Grade 1-winning five-year-old would make a lovely broodmare. But her new connections wanted to give her a chance at a six-year-old campaign in 2015, and they've been rewarded. By getting up in course-record time in Saturday's $500,000 Diana (G1) at Saratoga, Hard Not to Like became the pro-tem leader of the older filly and mare turf division. (I say "older" out of deference to undisputed three-year-old filly turf star Lady Eli, sadly stricken with laminitis.)
A late-surging winner of the May 25 Gamely (G1) last time out at Santa Anita, the Christophe Clement mare was one of a trio capable of claiming that leadership here. The others were old mainstay Stephanie's Kitten, the 2-1 favorite with her boatload of back class along with a prerequisite for a hot pace, and up-and-coming Tepin, who had capitalized on soft trips in both the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) and Just a Game (G1).
Tepin's chances figured to be compromised by the presence of Kitten's Queen, the rabbit for Stephanie's Kitten. As it turned out, Kitten's Queen ended up setting the table for Hard Not to Like. In a further irony, Hard Not to Like was ridden by John Velazquez, formerly the regular rider of Stephanie's Kitten until her tough-trip fourth in the June 5 New York (G2).
As the pacemaker did her job through fractions of :23.54, :47.20 and 1:10.15 on the firm Mellon turf, she was chased by My Miss Sophia and Tepin. The top three opened up a double-digit lead on the rest of the field, headed by Hard Not to Like. Stephanie's Kitten was unhurried at the back, but not traveling with much verve even rounding the far turn.
Tepin accosted Kitten's Queen down the stretch, as My Miss Sophia could not continue to match their rip-roaring gallop. The rabbit proved stubborn, however, and Tepin had to keep finding extra to wear her down.
Then inside the final furlong, the gray flash of Hard Not to Like went into overdrive. Five lengths back at the eighth-pole, she had to reel off her final eighth in a little more than :11 to catch Tepin, but she summoned the necessary speed to mug her on the line. Her final time of 1:45.22 shaved .11 off the old 1 1/8-mile mark set by Shakis on August 25, 2007 (in the Bernard Baruch H. [G2]). Note that Shakis carried 116 pounds; Hard Not to Like ranked as the 123-pound highweight here.
Tepin ran a winning race in defeat, rebutting my pre-race concerns that a truly-run 1 1/8 miles would be beyond her. Kitten's Queen excelled herself for the second straight time in third, having held third in the New York (albeit by going too slowly early), and now missing by all of a neck in the Diana. My Miss Sophia ran respectably in fourth, and I think she'd be a fascinating turf-to-dirt angle for the August 29 Personal Ensign (G1).
Stephanie's Kitten finished with interest for fifth, but she took far too long to hit her stride. That tendency was very much in play last year as well, and it took a step up to 1 1/4 miles in the Flower Bowl (G1) to snap the losing streak. Now six, "Stephanie" might need that trip at this point in her career. At the same time, it's disconcerting that she couldn't at least place as in the past two runnings of the Diana.
The final two across the wire, Lady Lara and Waltzing Matilda, likewise didn't get involved from off the pace. Lady Lara could benefit from class relief at present, while the in-foal Waltzing Matilda will probably focus her attention on motherhood.
Hard Not to Like, overlooked as the fifth choice at 6-1, paid $14.40 to win.The daughter of Hard Spun also became racing's newest millionaire with earnings of $1,261,671 from her 20-8-3-2 line. A onetime Queen's Plate hope when trained by Gail Cox, she beat the boys in the 2011 Cup and Saucer and finished second in the 2012 Ashland (G1). After undergoing surgery for a knee chip following her sixth in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), she made a winning comeback in the 2013 Marshua's River (G3) in her debut for Michael Matz. Hard Not to Like placed in that year's Gallorette (G3) and Ballston Spa (G2), and notched her first Grade 1 in the 2014 Jenny Wiley (G1).
Just when Hard Not to Like appeared to find a consistency to match her talent, she was sidelined again through Keeneland November. Switched to Clement by her new owners, she resurfaced with a victory in the January 31 Endeavour (G3) at Tampa, only to be demoted to second for interference. She was third as the defending champion in the Jenny Wiley before the Gamely, and now boasts consecutive Grade 1 wins.
The divisional picture will be clarified further in the build-up to the Breeders' Cup, and the internationals will have plenty to say from the August 15 Beverly D. (G1) onward. But right now, Hard Not to Like can claim to be the top American-based candidate.
Diana photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese.