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Top fillies step out in first Matron

by Bob Wisener | April 1, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Wicked Halo (6), under Tyler Gaffalione, beats Matareya (2), under Flavien Prat, in the $250,000 Matron Stakes Friday at Oaklawn. - Photo courtesy of Coady Photography

Much as short fields can produce thrilling finishes, wet tracks can yield fast times.

Both factors came into play in Friday's inaugural running of the $250,000 Matron at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, where the sun shone at post time after the weather-related cancellation of the third race.

Two 4-year-old fillies coming off long vacations put on a show on the eve of the 87th Arkansas Derby. The battle between multiple graded winners was for the national guys, or anyone watching with Major League Baseball just out of the gate and college basketball inside the sixteenth-mile marker.

Oaklawn fans witnessed another installment of the series between trainers Steve Asmussen, he of 10,000 wins, and Brad Cox, he of two Eclipse Awards and credited with a Kentucky Derby victory (the Texan showing an 0-for-24 record in the latter race). This one went to Asmussen with another stakes winner sired by Gun Runner and racing for that retired champion's breeder, Ron Winchell.

Wicked Halo, last seen Nov. 5 at Keeneland when third to champion Goodnight Olive in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, circled her three rivals on the turn and fought back in midstretch for the victory. Tyler Gaffalione got the needed response from the outside-drawn favorite, pulling away late by three quarters of a length over Matareya.

"Talented group of mares and the exciting part is for her to come back running that fast," Asmussen said. "She finished off the year in spectacular fashion. .... four stakes wins and then was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She got a little break off that. For her to come back and beat a filly the quality of Matareya in such a competitive fashion is very exciting."

Near 6 p.m. locally, they weren't out walking the dog in late afternoon. If anything, the dog got scalded as Pretty Birdie, herself a two-time local stakes winner, went out in 21.15 seconds. Neither she nor fellow two-time local winner I'm the Boss of Me (half in 44.25) could hold up long under that, allowing the expected battle of the top two to develop.

With Tyler Gaffalione getting the better of jockey Flavien Prat, Wicked Halo clipped six furlongs in 1:09.31 over a sealed track downgraded from sloppy to muddy. She paid $4 to win in a field that lost three scheduled starters and in which Lasix was not allowed.

The two came from different directions off the turn, Wicked Halo widest with Matareya coming up the rail but quickly moving to midtrack.

A millionaire Grade 1 winner, Matareya had not started since having a four-race winning streak snapped when third in the Grade 1 Test at Saratoga in August. Pioneerof the Nile's daughter, in Godolphin blue, scored a G1 victory last year in the Acorn going a mile on Belmont Stakes Day, her two other stakes wins coming in the spring in Kentucky. Her 5-3-1 record from 10 starts shows another Oaklawn second in her last start at 2, a Dec. 31 allowance.

Wicked Halo, a Grade 2 winner in both racing seasons, is sure to get more Grade 1 chances after coming close at Keeneland. With a 7-0-4 record from 12 starts, she, too, topped $1 million in the Fantasy. One of her future rivals may be multiple Oaklawn graded winner Yuugiri, reportedly headed to the G1 Madison opening weekend of the spring meeting in Lexington.

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