Pretty Birdie and jockey David Cabrera are back, and Oaklawn racing stands to gain.
Marylou Whitney, the grande dame of the American sport, is gone, but through Pretty Birdie and other horses, her spirit lives on. And the North American sport is all the better.
Foaled in January 2019, months before her owner died, Pretty Birdie scored her second Oaklawn stakes victory of the year Saturday by two lengths in the $150,000 Poinsettia. The Whitney homebred in March won the six-furlong Purple Martin, formerly named in honor of Arkansas Derby-winning filly Althea and the electronic game Instant Racing and converted into a sprint stake.
In her first start since the July 9 Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont Park, the winner broke on top and led every step going 5 1/2 furlongs in Oaklawn's second Poinsettia. With Caribbean Caper the favorite, shipping in from New Orleans, Pretty Birdie returned a generous $10.60, $5.40 and $4, her winning time 1:03.46.
With 62 victories, Cabrera won his first Oaklawn riding title last spring although sidelined for the last month with a concussion and other injuries after a March 8 spill. He then was involved in another spill in November at Remington Park in Oklahoma.
Cabrera rode Pretty Birdie twice at Oaklawn, placing fifth in the Dixie Belle before taking the Purple Martin by 2 3/4 lengths. Wicked Halo, a multiple Grade 2 winner for trainer Steve Asmussen, ran third as the PM favorite, also running third in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last month at Keeneland.
Norm Casse, son of Hall of Famer Mark Casse, trains Pretty Birdie, who races for Whitney's last husband, John Hendrickson. Whitney will be linked inexorably with Oaklawn for racing Birdstone, the 2004 Belmont Stakes upsetter of undefeated Smarty Jones. Recognizing the pain felt by many throughout racing, Whitney lamented the classic victory, a gesture felt also by trainer Nick Zito and jockey Edgar Prado in a moving moment before a sellout crowd at Belmont Park. It would be 11 years before Oaklawn-raced American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Whitney kept the last name of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, a champion thoroughbred owner and noted movie producer (John Wayne's classic "The Searchers" among his films). Whitney, who died in 1992, raced Exile King against Sunny's Halo in the 1983 Arkansas Derby, he and his wife receiving a tribute from Oaklawn during the local visit
Pretty Birdie scored for the first time since the Purple Martin March 26 and fourth time in nine career starts. With $90,000 for the victory, she has earned more than $460,000. At 2, she won the Grade 3 Schuylerville at Saratoga, where the Grade 1 Whitney is one of the leading races each summer.
Sarah Harper, continuing a hot season for trainer Ron Moquett (two more wins Saturday), was second and Caribbean Caper, trained by Al Stall Jr., ran third, beaten 5 1/4 lengths. The exacta paid $38.80 for a $1 ticket and the trifecta $69.80 for 50 cents.
Tinsel: Past training champion Robertino Diodoro keeps beating favorites, putting him in title contention after five days in a season that runs through early May.
Atop that food chain at Oaklawn is 12-time local champion and Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Diodoro, remember, edged the Texan here in 2020. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Both of Diodoro's Oaklawn victories Saturday came with horses making their first local start. Disc Jockey, a 5-year-old whose owner, Hot Springs native Jerry Caroom, is himself white-hot early, defeated Barber Road, seemingly a grizzled veteran although he does not turn 4 until Jan. 1, in the eighth race.
Barber Road, second in three Oaklawn starts (Grade 1 Arkansas Derby included) and third in another at 3, was making his first start since the Belmont Stakes in July. Disc Jockey ($8) came off two wins at Remington Park after Diodoro claimed him for $25,000 at Los Alamitos in Southern California. His fifth win of the year came in a $104,000 allowance at 1 1/16 miles.
Diodoro then doubled with Bal Harbour over reigning Oaklawn Handicap winner Last Samurai in the $200,000 Tinsel at the handicap's nine-furlong distance. Cristian Torres, riding both winners for Diodoro, put away tiring favorite Caribbean Caper in the stretch for a neck victory in 1:49.22, Bal Harbour paying $13.20 and exotic wagers including a $19.20 exacta and $46.45 trifecta. As fate would have it, the top two are sired by First Samurai, the runner-up owned by late Arkansan Willis Horton and trained by Hall of Famer Wayne Lukas.
Seven-year-old Bal Harbour himself was claimed two races back at Saratoga for $50,000 off Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher. Bal Harbour then ran a commendable third, although beaten 7 1/2 lengths, in a Grade 2 race on Friday of Breeders' Cup week at Keeneland.
Owned by John Holleman, Bal Harbour's 7-5-10 record is a little topheavy with minor awards from 34 career starts, but $120,000 Saturday boosted the gelding's earnings to more than $866,000.
Holleman is among the owners of the Diodoro-trained Mistletoe winner Lovely Ride, a 4-year-old filly, on opening Saturday, Dec. 4. Keep this up and he'll be accepting a second Oaklawn championship trophy on the meet's final Saturday, if he's not running something in the Kentucky Derby that day.