It has been a big meet for trainer Mark Casse and owners John and Debby Oxley at Keeneland this fall, and the momentum carried through to the biggest race of Saturday's card. La Coronel was 5-1 when the gates opened in the Grade 1 QEII Challenge Cup, but she went straight for the lead under Jose Lezcano and never looked back, holding off 9-1 Daddys Lil Darling by three-quarters of a length on the wire. The 3-year-old daughter of Colonel John covered 1 1/8 miles on the firm turf in 1:48.99 to earn her first graded stakes victory. A 5-2 favorite in the final betting, Breeders' Cup winner New Money Honey finished off the board in sixth.
“We're just so happy for the Oxleys (winning owner John C. Oxley and his wife, Debby, whose Heavenly Love won the Darley Alcibiades-G1 for Casse on Oct. 6) and for (La Coronel) to get a Grade 1 win and redeem herself,” said Casse's assistant David Carroll. “Some people might have doubted her, but she showed her true colors today. We couldn't be any happier.”
“It was a fantastic race,” Carroll continued. “Jose (Lezcano) rode her beautifully. All the credit goes to (Casse's son and assistant Norman). She came down to me (from Casse at Churchill Downs) during the week. We schooled her (in the Keeneland Paddock). She settled in well.”
Out sharply as she usually is, La Coronel was guided straight to the front by Lezcano heading into the first turn. He secured her a solid position against the inside rail, then settled into a long hold for the journey around the backstretch. After a first quarter in :23.81, La Coronel settled down significantly for the second quarter mile to clock a split of 24.79 seconds after a :48.60 half-mile.
Javier Castellano, riding New Money Honey to the outside about a length back in second, felt the pace ease up and moved his mount up to press La Coronel just a bit. Meanwhile, Daddys Lil Darling was sitting a perfect stalking trip just behind the leader on the rail in third position.
Heading into the far turn La Coronel pulled away to a 1 1/2-length lead. New Money Honey and Daddys Lil Darling were on even terms trying to catch the leader at the three-eighths pole, as well as Uni traveling four-wide.
At the top of the stretch La Coronel denied her rivals by finding another gear once again, maintaining her advantage. New Money Honey dropped out quickly, but Daddys Lil Darling was very determined in her pursuit through the length of the lane. Other than a distraction near the sixteenth pole when she appeared to jump a shadow and changed to the wrong lead for one stride, Daddys Lil Darling was consistently making up ground on La Coronel.
“I wanted to go to the lead,” Lezcano said. “She was very comfortable there. Last time I rode her (in the Sands Point-G2 on Sept. 16 at Belmont Park), she jumped a little bit early into the bit, but after that she relaxed on the backside. Today she broke and was very comfortable (in the lead) so I let her be. She was comfortable the whole way around.”
La Coronel had enough left to hold off her rival by three-quarters of a length on the wire. Daddys Lil Darling would have to settle for second once again, her fourth runner-up finish in Grade 1 company (Alcibiades, Ashland, and Kentucky Oaks). The versatile daughter of Scat Daddy has now made over $900,000 with three wins and five seconds in 13 career starts.
“Robby positioned her perfectly,” said Ken McPeek, trainer of Daddys Lil Darling. “It wasn't like he was way back on a slow pace; he was up close. He rode her well and she just couldn't get past the winner. I am pleased with the way she ran.”
Madam Dancealot was up from the rear of the field to finish third in front of Uni, and Beau Recall finished fifth.
Bred in Kentucky by Kim and Rodney Nardelli, Susan Bunning, A. Jaffreys and B. Jaffreys, La Coronel was a $375,000 OBS April purchase. It took three starts to break her maiden, but she immediately followed it with a win in the G3 Jessamine Stakes in her fourth start. Sixth after a wide draw in the Breeders' Cup, La Coronel won both the G3 Edgewood and G3 Appalachian before a trip to Royal Ascot for the Group 1 Coronation Stakes, where she finished fifth.
La Coronel had not found the winner's circle in two starts following her overseas journey, but managed to return to form in stellar fashion for the QEII. Overall, the filly has won five of her 12 starts for earnings of over three-quarters of a million dollars.
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