Zhukova romps to six-length victory over males in G1 Man o' War
by Heather Pettinger
The guys proved no match for John D. Murrell's Zhukova on Saturday at Belmont Park, as the 5-year-old Irish mare dominated her male competition in the Grade 1, $400,000 Man o' War for 4-year-olds and up at 1 3/8 miles on the inner turf course.
Zhukova broke from post 4 and settled in second as Charming Kitten strolled through the early going, a length ahead of Zhukova, covering the opening half-mile in a leisurely 56.45 seconds, with three-quarters going in 1:24.16.
Coolly handled by John Velazquez, Zhukova loomed on the outside of Charming Kitten, who led the mile in 1:49.69, and effortlessly took the lead in the far turn. Velazquez gave his cue as they reached the top of the stretch and Zhukova answered without hesitation, accelerating through the lane to win by six lengths over Taghleeb.
"She gives you so much confidence," said Velazquez. "She broke well and there really wasn't much speed in the race on paper. They told me she likes to be close to the pace and with no pace at all, I knew she was going to break great and be right there. She handled the grass really well and coming from Europe you could tell she was used to this type of surface. When I asked her to run down the lane she had another gear."
Favored at 4-5, Zhukova returned $3.80 for a $2 win wager. She completed the route in 2:25.31 on yielding turf to give trainer Dermot Weld his first Belmont stakes victory since the 2003 Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational with Dimitrova.
The win was the seventh overall from 10 starts but the first Grade 1 for Zhukova, who has twice beaten males in stakes in her native Ireland.
"We're absolutely over the moon with that," said Mark Weld, assistant trainer to his father. "It was a major target over the last few weeks. The rain came, which was a huge help. Johnny was very complimentary about her. He said she could have a future here. She'll come home now but the [Breeders' Cup] Fillies & Mares Turf would be a definite possibility to finish off the year.
"I was concerned with the fractions; my big fear is that it would happen and that she would get caught," he added. "But her class won out. She's a true European Grade 1 mare. We've known she's a good mare for a little while. You don't beat the Breeders' Cup winner Found very easily, and she beat her pretty handily [in the Alleged Stakes]. She's a homebred; we've had her since she was a foal bred by my grandmother. This is huge for us today. We have a lot to look forward to."
Sadler's Joy finished third, followed by Charming Kitten and Wake Forest. Highland Sky and Patterson Cross were scratched.