March 13, 2011
Sure there were differences, but there were plenty of similarities between Joyful Victory's win in Saturday's Honeybee Stakes and the winning performance nearly one year ago by the great Zenyatta in the historic 2010 Apple Blossom Invitational.
Let's start with presence of Mike Smith as a rider. Of course he virtually owns the Apple Blossom, having won it five times from 2002-2010. Right off the bat that rider, who spent much of his apprenticeship in middle America, including Oaklawn Park, lends an air of importance to any local race in which he participates.
Let's then talk about running styles. Of course the public, being introduced for the first time to Joyful Victory, wouldn't know what to expect. But Mike rode with the confidence that he displayed aboard Zenyatta. He allowed a number of speedy fillies to go out and set up the race. Then, when he turned his mount loose, she looped the field on the final turn in a move quite remenicent of the great Zenyatta, breaking the bubble of those backing the pacesetters. His mount toyed with the field the rest of the way, although Mike did keep her mind on her business with a few left-handed reminders in the stretch. The official margin was eight and three-quarters lengths, the second largest in the 24-year history of the mile-and-a-sixteenth prep for Oaklawn's three-year-old filly championship race, the Fantasy, which comes up, at the same distance, on Sunday, April 10. The record 10-length margin was set when Imaginary Lady set the stakes record mark of 1:43 in 1989. Saturday's winning time was 1:44 4/5, the same registered by the Jones-trained Just Jenda in winning the 2009 edition of the race. Jack Van Berg, during the Alysheba era, used to talk about time as "only important when you're in jail."
Still, Joyful Victory's Saturday performance may go a long way in limiting the competition she faces on Fantasy day. There aren't many around looking to take a spanking like the group (a pretty decent collection) did on Saturday. That race probably assisted some other tracks to enhance the size of their local Kentucky Oaks preps, Too bad Oaklawn doesn't offer the Kentucky Oaks Futures Pool. There would be plenty of us to jump onto the Joyful Victory bandwagon after what we saw on Saturday.
What's left for Joyful Victory to do to sustain that old "Zenyatta feeling"?
One thing going for her is that she is a gray. Although not the imposing figure of Zenyatta, she is an eye-catcher, particulary with her odd-looking set of red-and-white blinkers. They give her something of a "Spuds MacKenzie" look going postward.
The other thing is that Mike needs to get used to showing her off to the public, like he did with Zenyatta, to develop that adoring and loving feeling between her and what will become her growing legion of fans. She doesn't prance like Zenyatta and she hasn't won a long laundry list of stakes -- yet.
But after Saturday's performance, it's hard to imagine she's not capable of that. In the hands of Larry Jones, it's fairly certain no one, especially Fox Hill Farm, is likely to start thinking Kentucky Derby, as we all did with Eight Belles in 2008. Eight Belles only won the Honeybee by a length-and-a-quarter and the Fantasy by three-quarters of a length. Joyful Victory appears poised to improve on the Fantasy number. Let's hope she can have a long and successful career,
She sure left us with that "love in springtime" feeling on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Oaklawn. There are 24,111 who were here, plus countless simulcast fans from coast-to-coast, who were also thrilled by what she showed in her three-year-old debut.
Was it a mirage? Let's find out on Sunday, April 10.