It wasn't the most commanding performance, but what else would you expect on a whimsical spring afternoon at New York's Aqueduct race course, a day that was kissed at one time or another by rain, snow and sunshine? Last Saturday the brilliant 3-year-old filly Meadow Star pushed her record to 9 for 9 with a 1¾-length victory in the $112,600 Comely Stakes, a mile race that she could have won by a lot more. But when it was over, her trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said he was satisfied with her performance. "My feeling now," he said, "is that we definitely will go back to the Wood."
He was talking about the April 20 Wood Memorial, long New York's most important Kentucky Derby prep, which will be run over the same track. The Wood will be Meadow Star's first crack at colts and her first effort at 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles, only a furlong shorter than the Derby distance. If she acquits herself well, she'll almost surely be shipped to Louisville's Churchill Downs to test Florida Derby winner Fly So Free and the nation's other leading 3-year-old colts in the 117th Kentucky Derby on May 4.
The filly's owner, Carl Icahn, chairman of the board of TWA, said after the Comely that Meadow Star didn't necessarily have to win the Wood to earn her trip to the Derby. "If she does well, we'll put her in there," Icahn said. But Jolley was more cautious, maintaining the wait-and-see posture he had assumed after Meadow Star won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last Oct. 27 at Belmont Park.
The Comely was Meadow Star's second victory of the year, following a 4¾-length laugher in the Queen of the Stage Stakes at Aqueduct on March 16, but it wasn't accomplished in the impressive fashion with which she had won her first eight races—by an average of slightly more than five lengths.
Jockey Chris Antley, who replaced Jose Santos after the latter committed to ride Fly So Free in the Kentucky Derby, took Meadow Star just back of the slow early pace set by Julie Krone aboard Do It With Style. But Antley was so confident, he almost played it too cool. At the top of the stretch, when he finally asked Meadow Star to run, the filly took her time getting into gear, allowing Do It With Style to retain the lead for a few more giddy moments in which, said Krone afterward, "I thought we had a chance." But when Meadow Star changed leads (shifting her lead foreleg from left to right) and began to feel the sting of Antley's whip (he hit her five righthanded licks), she blew past Do It With Style and drew off to win, covering the mile in a slow 1:38.
As Antley guided the filly into the walking ring, an anxious Icahn greeted him: "Hey, Chris, were you holding her back there?" After listening to Antley's explanation ("I could have opened up five lengths in the turn if I'd wanted to," the jockey said), Icahn seemed mollified. "He wasn't pushing her," said Icahn.
As for Antley, his status as a Kentucky Derby rider is clouded by a five-day suspension in California—the result of interfering with the progress of another horse during the Santa Anita Handicap on March 9. Although Antley has appealed the suspension, he must await the California racing board's decision and hope he can serve his suspension at his convenience. That would leave him free to ride Meadow Star in the Wood and, with luck, the Derby, where he has finished 10th and ninth in his only two starts.
After the Comely, Jolley didn't waste time second-guessing Antley's ride, preferring to concentrate on the fact that his filly closed strongly, covering the last quarter of a mile in a solid 24 seconds despite carrying the high weight of 121 pounds, three to nine more than her four opponents. And Meadow Star seemed to have no trouble handling an off track that was upgraded from muddy to good just before the Comely.
"The thing I wanted was for her to finish strong," said Jolley. "She did that. This race was very good for her because she had to fight. Horses tend to lull us into complacency if they win off easily. We knew she had the ability, so it was good to see her fight and win."
The son of the late Moody Jolley, who trained for Claiborne Farm in the 1950s, Jolley is a traditionalist who understands what a daunting task it can be to run a filly against colts. The males are physically stronger, especially at such a relatively early stage in their careers, and Meadow Star, who was born on May 19, 1988, won't even be three on Derby Day.
Of the 1,389 thoroughbreds that have started in the 116 Kentucky Derbys since 1875, only 35 have been females. Of those, three have won the roses—Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988—and Jolley was the man who trained Genuine Risk for Bert and Diana Firestone. But Genuine Risk ran in the Derby only because the Firestones overruled Jolley, who didn't think she deserved a chance after finishing third in that year's Wood.
In retrospect, of course, Jolley may have been right. After winning the Derby, Genuine Risk ran second in the Preakness and Belmont, making her the first (and still the only) filly to finish in the money in all of the Triple Crown races. But the grind may have exacted a heavy toll. In the 10 years that Genuine Risk has been a broodmare, she has never been delivered of a foal that lived, although Jolley, for one, declines to blame the rigors of her track career. "A very strange thing," he said last week. "She was the healthiest and kindest filly you could imagine. It must be a freak of nature—something in her makeup where it just wasn't meant to be."
As a rule, a trainer will take a shot with a filly only if he believes that filly is exceptional and the crop of colts mediocre. At this juncture, Jolley isn't ready to make that assessment. He wants to check out how the best California contenders fare in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, how Fly So Free looks in his final Derby prep, the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and, of course, how Meadow Star looks against what's shaping up as a so-so field of colts in the Wood Memorial.
The dilemma is compounded by the fact that Meadow Star is from the first crop of the stallion Meadow-lake, who was 2 for 2 as a 2-year-old and won his only race at 3 years old before his career was curtailed by injury, meaning that Jolley is shooting in the dark with her because he has no point of reference. So far, Meadow Star has been professional in almost every way. Her only personality quirk is that she gets skittish while being saddled before a race, which is why Jolley had men holding both sides of her head before the Comely and his son, Lee, stroking her nose, to calm her.
"Like Genuine Risk, she has the ability to relax under pressure, which might be the key to the whole thing," Jolley said. But whatever he decides, expect it to be a responsible decision. Last fall Jolley was at Belmont Park when Go for Wand, the best 3-year-old filly in the nation, snapped a foreleg near the end of her stretch duel with Bayakoa in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and was humanely destroyed on the track. But Jolley won't let sad memories like that affect his Kentucky Derby decision about Meadow Star.
"I doubt that we'll try unless we feel we have a very good chance to win," Jolley says. "None of us wants to run against a horse that we can't handle. We'll just have to evaluate every situation that comes up between now and the Derby."