Hard Not To Love ‘Getting Better And Better,’ Dominates Santa Monica

by | 02.15.2020 | 6:50pm
Jockey Mike Smith guides Hard Not to Love to the winner's circle after their victory in their Grade II, $200,000 Santa Monica Stakes, Saturday, February 15, 2020 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia CA.© BENOIT PHOTO

In what appeared to be her best race to date, heavily favored Hard Not to Love drew clear late to win Saturday's Grade II, $200,000 Santa Monica Stakes by 3 ½ lengths under Mike Smith. Trained by John Shirreffs, the sight-impaired 4-year-old daughter of Hard Spun got seven furlongs in 1:22.19 at Santa Anita.

In a what is a true testament to the applied horsemanship of both Smith and Shirreffs, Hard Not to Love, who lost the use of her left eye in a paddock accident as a youngster, was a model of decorum going to the starting gate today and she ran accordingly, with no mishaps along the way.

“She's getting better and better,” said Shirreffs, who was visibly moved by her performance. “The stewards allowed us to break from post parade when she came out of the tunnel. Her groom, Martin Lopez, walked her around the (Club House) turn and she stayed calm.

“She never breaks (sharply), but she reacts very quickly. Mike said he was waiting for her to relax and then he put her into the race. I love Mike, we go back a long way and we think a lot alike. He's such a horseman, for him, it's all about the horse. That's above winning or losing, it's always about the horse. It looked like this was her best race.”

Indeed it did. Breaking just a bit tardily, Hard Not to Love responded to Smith's golden touch early and was challenging Lady Ninja and Mother Mother for the lead around the far turn. Caught three-deep turning for home, Hard Not to Love inched clear of Mother Mother in mid-stretch and won with her ears pricked.

Fresh off victory in the Grade I La Brea Stakes at the same distance on Dec. 28, Hard Not to Love was the 3-5 favorite in a field of five older fillies and mares and paid $3.20, $2.10 and $2.10.

“She got into a really good rhythm once we passed the gap about the three quarter pole,” said Smith, who has now won all three of his races with Hard Not to Love, dating back to a 6 ½ furlong allowance score here on Oct. 25. “She kind of put her head down and got into a really nice rhythm. I knew she was gonna run well at that point. I gotta take my hat off to John Shirreffs and everybody, the groom, the gallop girl that gets on her.

“She is a lot of work and they have done a lot to get her here and it is paying off. She gets anxious and the fans are starting to know her. They show her a lot of respect and they get quiet for her. She just gets anxiety because she can't see everything, but she is such a sweetheart. The best part is once we get her in the gate and get her running.”

Owned by Mercedes Stables, LLC, West Point Thoroughbreds, Scott Dilworth, Dorothy Ingordo, David Ingordo and Steve Mooney, Hard Not to Love, who is out of the Vindication mare Loving Vindication, has now won five out of her six starts and with the winner's share of $120,000, increased her earnings to $408,480.

When asked about her next assignment, Shirreffs said they would point to the Grade I, $400,000 Beholder Mile on March 14.

“I think as long as she can (relax), with her style of running, it shouldn't be a problem,” he said.

Mother Mother, who was head and head for the lead while between horses, proved second best, finishing 1 ½ lengths in front of longshot Zusha. Off at 3-2 with Flavien Prat up, Mother Mother paid $2.20 and $2.10.

Ridden by Tiago Pereira, Zusha picked up a tiring Lady Ninja late, finishing third by one length. Off at 28-1, she paid $2.80 to show.

Fractions on the race were 23.04, 45.81 and 1:10.07.

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