Aspen Grove up in time in G1 Fasig-Tipton Belmont Oaks Invitational
by Keith McCalmont
Breeder Glen Hill Farm and Mrs. John Magnier’s Irish-bred European shipper Aspen Grove, patiently handled by Oisin Murphy, arrived in the final strides to capture Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Fasig-Tipton Belmont Oaks Invitational, at Belmont Park.
The 10-furlong inner turf test for sophomore fillies is the first leg of the Fasig-Tipton Fillies Turf Triple series, which is followed by the 1 3/16-mile Grade 3, $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Oaks Invitational on August 4 at Saratoga Race Course and the Grade 3, $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Jockey Club Oaks Invitational on September 16 going 11 furlongs at Belmont at the Big A.
Craig Bernick of Glen Hill Farm said the James “Fozzy” Stack-trained Aspen Grove is likely to stay in North America and target the Saratoga Oaks or the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks on August 19.
“The money is great here. She’s already a Grade 1 winner. I think she would have a hard time winning a Group 1 in Europe. There’s a whole program for her here,” Bernick said. “We’ll talk about it tonight over drinks with Fozzy. Jack [Sisterson] is at Saratoga, Tom Proctor is at Del Mar, and Mark Enright [traveling assistant/former rider] is here with the horse. We’ll figure it out. We came thinking we could win, but it’s a nice surprise, too."
The Justify bay was loaded into the outermost post 9 with a blanket on and after breaking awkwardly she was guided to the rail to save ground in fifth position as Prerequisite and Be Your Best dueled through an opening quarter-mile in 24.16 seconds over the firm footing.
Prerequisite, last out winner of the Grade 2 Wonder Again here, took command down the backstretch under Irad Ortiz, Jr. through a half-mile in 50.55 with Be Your Best pressing and 2-1 mutuel favorite Mission of Joy saving ground in third position to the inside of Aspray.
Mission of Joy angled off the rail to launch her bid as Prerequisite led the closely-bunched field to the far turn through three-quarters in 1:16.69 with Aspen Grove traveling comfortably in sixth position. Murphy gave Aspen Grove her cue midway through the turn, maneuvering off the rail to follow the run of Aspray before surging to the inside of a retreating Be Your Best at the head of the stretch and ranging outside of Mission of Joy to collar Prerequisite for the three-quarter length score in a final time of 2:04.09.
Prerequisite completed the exacta by a neck over the late-running Papilio, who stumbled at the start under Hall of Famer Javier Castellano. Aspray, Freydis the Red, Speirling Beag, Mission of Joy, Strikingly Spun and Be Your Best rounded out the order of finish.
Murphy secured his third graded win in North America following past success with Blond Me in the 2017 Grade 1 E.P. Taylor at Woodbine and aboard Marche Lorraine in the 2021 Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Del Mar.
“She broke a little slowly compared to American horses," Murphy said. "I used to work for Fozzy Stack when I was a small boy, 14 and 15. To team up and win a Group 1 for him in the Belmont Oaks is brilliant, really brilliant."
Aspen Grove captured the one-mile Group 3 Newtownanner Stud Irish EBF in August at the Curragh in rein to the recently retired Enright, who joined the filly on her journey to New York and was aboard for her local training.
She made her last two outings with Enright at the controls, finishing third in her seasonal debut in the one-mile Group 3 Cornelscourt in May at Leopardstown before an off-the-board effort in the one-mile Group 1 Irish 1000 Guineas on May 28 at the Curragh over good ground.
“She won a turf race as a 2-year-old over a mile, so we always thought distance [would be fine],” Murphy said. “I was very happy because I was able to save ground towards the rail and when the pace stopped in front of me, I was able to get out on the back of a horse going forward – number seven, Chad Brown’s filly [Aspray]. I switched out into the straight and it wasn’t a very difficult ride.”
Stack said Aspen Grove had an excuse for her Irish 1000 Guineas effort.
“She ran huge today. Last out, she was in season unfortunately, but you have one Guineas to run in,” said Stack. “It didn’t work out, but she did well today and shipped over well. Mark used to ride her at home and came over with her. He’s done a good job with her for the last week or so. He kept her fresh and happy and she did it well.”
Ortiz, Jr. said he was proud of the effort from Prerequisite.
“I was enjoying it [the pace] and she was enjoying her time out there," Ortiz, Jr. said. "She was happy, she was relaxed. She gave me everything and when we turned for home, I feel like she was running. Unlucky we got beat.”
Aspen Grove banked $275,000 in victory while improving her record to 7-2-0-1. She returned $33.40 for a $2 win bet.
Live racing resumes Sunday at Belmont Park for Closing Day of the spring/summer meet before action moves upstate to Saratoga Race Course for the 40-day summer meet which begins on Thursday. First post on Sunday’s nine-race card is 12:30 p.m. Eastern.
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