A year ago Moonlight Cloud nearly shocked the racing world. Closing with her patented late rush, the little bay mare came up a head short to the wonder mare Black Caviar in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. It was the closest the Australian champion came to defeat in 25 starts.
In early October on racing’s grandest stage in France, Moonlight Cloud showcased her dazzling speed to land the Qatar Prix de la Foret at Longchamp Racecourse outside Paris.
Owned and bred by George Strawbridge Jr., a resident of Cochranville, Pa., the 4-5 favorite Moonlight Cloud unleashed an astounding burst of speed swooping from last to first in scintillating style to capture the seven furlong race by three lengths. The British-bred mare won in 1:14.08 for 1,400 meters and took her overall record to 12 wins, including six Group-1 races, and two seconds from 19 career starts. She has career earnings of nearly $2.2 million.
Moonlight Cloud is trained by Frenchman Freddie Head and was ridden by Thierry Jarnet, the winner of the legendary Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with Treve earlier in the card.
"She just has an extraordinary ability to accelerate, an extra gear that none of her rivals have," Jarnet said.
Moonlight Cloud—by Invincible Spirit out of Ventura, by Spectrum-- was given a patient ride by Jarnet, placing the five-year old mare at the back of the field before going for home inside the final three furlongs to win comfortably.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘turn of foot’ when describing a horse’s explosive kick down the stretch and wondered what exactly it meant, take look at the video of the Prix de la Foret. Moonlight Cloud appeared hopelessly beaten, running dead last with a quarter mile to go to the winning post. Then all of a sudden jockey Jarnet pressed the “easy button” and she whooshed past her ten overmatched rivals. Her acceleration was truly jaw-dropping as she easily caught and overtook the front-running Gordon Lord Byron.
Even trainer Head thought Jarnet had left too much to be done.
“I thought Thierry had left her a long way back and Gordon Lord Byron had taken an easy lead, I wondered if we would catch him but when the speed comes, she can really quicken,” Head acknowledged. “It is a real pleasure to train a horse like this."
Moonlight Cloud won for the fourth time in as many starts this season. After making a successful return to action in a Group-3 in early July, she twice lit up Deauville Racecourse in August when she broke the track record in the Prix Maurice de Gheest over six and a half furlongs and then triumphed in the Prix Jacques le Marois over a mile on successive Sundays. With her two victories Moonlight Cloud joined Goldikova (Head-trained) and Miesque (Head-ridden) among the legends of Deauville.
“It is extraordinary for any horse to break two course records in a week,” Head marveled. “She is one of the greats. She is only small, but she has a massive heart, and she ranks alongside my other two champions.”
Tagged the “Queen of Europe,” Moonlight Cloud is considered one of the best-ever race mare sprinters. With the victory Moonlight Cloud qualified (“Win and You’re In”) for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park on November 2.
Still, Head and Strawbridge are not keen about running at Santa Anita despite the fact that Strawbridge has raced three Breeders’ Cup winners-- Informed Decision, Forever Together, and Tikkanen—and has been a major supporter of American racing’s championship day with a dozen or so starters over the years.
Hong Kong Instead
Moonlight Cloud’s only truly disappointing run last season was in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, never unleashing that turn of foot. She finished eighth. A trip to Hong Kong, however, looks increasingly likely.
"She ran badly at the Breeders' Cup last year, it is two turns,” explained the Chantilly-based Head. “It is one turn in Hong Kong, which is better for her."
Whether her likely outing (one-mile race) in Hong Kong’s International Meeting will be her final competitive start remains unclear, with Head not ruling out the chances of her staying in training as a six-year-old in 2014.
“Thierry said she never had a hard race so maybe she would be as good at six as she is at five,” Head said. “She still seems fresh and well, so we will see. Nothing is decided yet."
Princess of Sylmar Is Top Filly
Ronnie and Betsy Houghton’s smiles keep getting brighter and brighter. On the last Saturday in September they were watching the telecast of the $400,000 Beldame Invitational at Belmont Park with particular interest. Two years before, a gorgeous filly with a white blaze was darting across one of their fields at Sylmar Farm.
The Houghtons own and operate a 300-acre farm where Thoroughbred broodmares, weanlings, yearlings, and racehorses roam the pastures outside Oxford, Pa. The farm staff put Princess of Sylmar through their program, and she quickly took command on the farm’s small training track, gallops in the fields and hacks in the woods.
“She is kind, and very smart, she has a terrific temperament,” Betsy Houghton said. “I mean nothing bothered her. She was such a happy filly all of the time. Every time she worked at our farm, the boy on her workmate would be riding his horse and the boy on Princess of Sylmar would be sitting still in order for them to stay together. You could tell she had a chance at being something special."
Facing older horses for the first time, the Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Majestic Warrior more than met the challenge in the Beldame Invitational on September 28. Rounding the turn, Princess of Sylmar began her run at Royal Delta (2-5 favorite) racing three wide. The two hooked up at the top of the stretch, with Princess of Sylmar drawing even and then pulling away under a strong hand ride to win by two lengths over the two-time champion over 1 1/8-miles in 1:47 4/5. She got the final eighth of a mile in a swift 12.67 seconds.
“My word, we were thrilled to death,” said Betsy Houghton. “She’s just an incredible filly. She does everything so easily.”
So what’s next for Sylmar Farm’s pride and joy?
Owner Ed Stanco and trainer Todd Pletcher were leaning toward giving Princess of Sylmar the rest of the year off after a tough campaign including her sharp two-length victory in the Beldame. But following the top American three year-old filly's half-mile breeze in :49 3/5 at Belmont on October 12, she may be headed to the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff on November 1.
"I'm expecting and hoping we go, but Todd said we should wait until her next work (October 19) before making a decision," related Stanco, a resident of Malvern, Pa. "She worked well today and I loved the way she galloped out. Every indication is that she came out fine and she's happy.”
In the Beldame Pletcher gave Javier Castellano a simple instruction: ride with a lot of patience.
"I think she did it the right way today,” Castellano noted. “She kept track of Royal Delta all the way. Turning for home, I didn't see Royal Delta take off, and my filly just grabbed me. When I let her go she just took off and opened up.”
"I emphasized to Javier just let her run her race,” added Pletcher. “Don't chase. Wherever you are, let it be on her terms, and just try to sit back and play to her strengths. I felt like if there was anyone on paper who could do that, it was her. It was nice (Royal Delta) didn't get completely loose. We kind of got within striking distance at the quarter-pole and I thought we had a big shot."
Stanco, who races under King of Prussia Stable, bred Majestic Warrior to his Catienus mare Storm Dixie to get the filly. Princess of Sylmar became the first filly ever to win the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, and Beldame -- all Grade-1 races-- in the same year. By capturing the Beldame and defeating Royal Delta, the best older female runner in the country in her first try outside of the division, Princess of Sylmar all but sewed up the three-year old filly championship. The last three-year old filly to win the Beldame was Imperial Gesture in 2002.
Princess of Sylmar’s time of 1:47 4/5 was the fastest Beldame since 5-year old Riboletta won the race 13 years ago. She earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure. It was the sixth win from seven starts and the fourth Grade 1 victory of the year. She earned a winner’s purse of $240,000 in the Beldame, pushing her career earnings to $1,607,220.
Committed to racing the filly again next year, Princess of Sylmar has been in training since October 2012 which included two victories at the winter meet at Aqueduct. After a 2 1/2-month rest after the Kentucky Oaks, she returned with three monster performances.
“I know everyone wants to see her run, but it’s about the filly,” Stanco explained. “That’s so critical to me. We’ve been with her since the day she was born and she’s very special. She’s a gift, a blessing, and we treat her that way. Hopefully, she has a lot of racing in her next year. We’re here to race. We don’t get into any of this return on investment.”
If the connections go to the Breeders’ Cup they will be taking on Beholder, Royal Delta and Closing Hatches in the Distaff. They also will be putting the champion three year-old filly honors back in play. Stanco said the filly will tell Pletcher what they should do.
Looking ahead to 2014, Stanco is targeting the Delaware Handicap at 1 ¼ miles in July and the Personal Ensign, run at 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga in August. The La Troienne at Churchill, typically run the same day as the Kentucky Oaks in May, could be an early-season kickoff.
Update: After Princess of Sylmar’s workout October 19, her connections announced the PA-bred filly will be headed to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on $2 Million Friday, November 1 at Anita Park.
Trainer Shug McGaughey is still scratching his head after the puzzling performance by 2013 Kentucky Derby champ Orb (by Malibu Moon) when the 3-year old colt finished eighth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Grade-1) on September 28. McGaughey said Orb could attempt to rebound in the Cigar Mile H. (Grade-1) on November 30 at Aqueduct. "I thought he worked fine," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "I asked him for :50, he went in :49 and change -- (splits of) :25 and change, :24 and change, and galloped out (five furlongs) in 1:02. I'm trying to get him started again and go from there. I'll make up my mind in a couple of weeks. I'll just fool with him and see where it takes us."
The trainer has a standout two-year-old colt, Honor Code (by A.P. Indy). Surging in the final strides, Honor Code came up a neck short in the Champagne Stakes (Grade-1) at Belmont Park on October 5. He is slated to run in the Remsen (Grade-2), also on November 30 at Aqueduct. "I've got plenty of time," McGaughey said. "I might work him next weekend, but he's not going to run until November 30, so I don't have to pound on him."
Contact horseracing writer Terry Conway at email@example.com.