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Taiba, Mo Donegal, Zandon join Kentucky Derby leaders

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Taiba, Mo Donegal, Zandon join Kentucky Derby leaders
Taiba wins Saturday's Santa Anita Derby. Benoit photo, courtesy of Santa Anita

April 11 (UPI) -- The field is all but set for the Kentucky Derby after weekend horse racing action, with Taiba upsetting the Santa Anita Derby, Mo Donegal taking the Wood Memorial in New York and Zandon triumphant on a snowy day at Keeneland in Kentucky.

Those results were sandwiched among lots more top racing action around the country that likely will impact races around the world -- particularly the sprint events at Royal Ascot in June.

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And speaking of the international scene, the first of this year's Japanese classics produced a minor upset in the 3-year-old filly ranks. And in Australia, major upsets were the only item on the menu in Saturday's Group 1 races at Royal Randwick.

Read on ...

The Road to the Roses

With only one minor event left on the prep schedule, Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter, who was not part of the weekend action, remains atop the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard.

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The standings beneath that contender, however, were modified significantly as the each of Saturday's races awarded 100 points to the winner with 40, 20 and 10 for the minor placings.

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Some other contenders were dropped from the list as no longer likely to contest the May 7 Run for the Roses.

In California

Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Santa Anita Derby turned into a two-horse race in the stretch -- but not involving the two horses who were expected to dominate the event.

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Instead, it was Taiba, making just his second career start, who was along to snatch the win and jump from nowhere into serious Kentucky Derby contention in two easy steps.

Even-money favorite Forbidden Kingdom led the way with his main rival, Messier, in close pursuit. But Forbidden Kingdom folded up at the top of the stretch. Messier looked the winner by default.

But then along came Taiba, slowly closing the gap and finally getting by, then impressively drawing off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. It was another 10 lengths from second-place Messier to long shot Happy Jack in third as Forbidden Kingdom chugged home last of six.

Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.46 with "Big Money" Mike Smith riding. He and Messier both were handed off from Derby-banned trainer Bob Baffert to conditioner Tim Yakteen before the race, making them Derby eligible.

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Taiba jumped to the No. 8 spot on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings. Messier's second-place finish also secured a spot in the Churchill Downs field.

Forbidden Kindgom's earlier successes guaranteed him a place in the starting gate but Churchill Downs dropped him from the standings Sunday as no longer being pointed to Louisville.

In New York

Mo Donegal jumped right into the thick of Kentucky Derby contention with a last-to-first victory in Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino.

The Uncle Mo colt, with Joel Rosario in the irons, moved up to No. 4 on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard with the win, ensuring trainer Todd Pletcher at least one Louisville entry.

Rosario took Mo Donegal back to last in the eight-horse Wood field, saving ground into the stretch turn. Urged out for room, the colt dominated the final furlong and put a neck in front of pacesetting Early Voting for the win.

Long shot Skippylongstocking was third and the favorite, Morello, finished sixth after hitting the gate at the start.

Mo Donegal finished the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:47.96. He won the Grade II Remsen over the track in December and returned to finish third in the Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in his only previous start of 2022.

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It was Pletcher's seventh victory in the Wood, tying him with legendary trainer "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons. Pletcher, who has two Kentucky Derby victories, also has Charge It sitting No. 21 and Pioneer of Medina No. 24 on the preference list for the 20-horse field.

"We're blessed to have some candidates," Pletcher said. "Like everyone else, we need them to continue to improve and stay healthy and keep moving forward and like the surface at Churchill. But we're pleased with where we are at the moment."

In Kentucky

Zandon rallied from last of 11 in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, made up ground around the turn and powered past rivals in the stretch to win by 2 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Smile Happy. The early leader, Emmanuel, stuck around for third.

Zandon ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.35 for jockey Flavien Prat on a track officially rated "good" after a day that featured rain, snow and near-freezing temperatures.

"It was just a matter of finding a gap and getting a clean run down the lane," Prat said, noting that the same conditions will apply in the Run for the Roses.

"It's going to be a bigger field, but it was already a good field today," he said. "It's just a matter of getting a clean break and getting yourself into position. That's always key."

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Zandon, an Upstart colt trained by Chad Brown, moved up to the No. 2 spot on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Smile Happy is No. 10. Emmanuel was dropped from the standings.

Brown's assistant at Keeneland, Baldo Hernandez, said Sunday morning that Zandon returned from the Blue Grass in good shape.

"Everything is all good with him this morning," Hernandez said. "He ate up everything last night."

Brown indicated earlier he will leave Zandon at Keeneland and ship him "maybe a couple weeks before the Derby."

The Path to the Oaks

If there were any doubts beforehand about Next, she put them to rest in Friday's $600,000 Central Bank Ashland at Keeneland.

After relaxing nicely in mid-pack for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., the Curlin filly rallied to the lead willingly turning for home, hit another gear and drew off to win by 8 1/4 lengths.

Cocktail Moments was along for second with early leader Interstatedaydream hanging around to get show money. Next, out of the A.P. Indy mare Marion Ravenwood, ran 1 1/16 miles on a wet-fast track in 1:44.16.

Nest won for the fourth time in five starts and now is poised to go to the Kentucky Oaks, likely among the favorites.

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"Irad got her into a good, comfortable rhythm going down the backside, and we didn't want anyone to get away from us with the short run to the finish line," winning trainer Todd Pletcher said.

"I knew when he had her revved up she was doing it pretty easily. Then she kicked on down the lane and he wrapped up on her late. So it was everything we could have hoped for."

Saturday at Santa Anita, Desert Dawn found just enough in the late going to post the upset win in the $400,000 Grade II Santa Anita Oaks, outfinishing odds-on favorite Adare Manor by a neck. It was another 7 1/2 lengths to Ain't Easy in third.

Desert Dawn, an Arizona-bred daughter of Cupid, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.50 with Umberto Rispoli up for trainer Phil D'Amato. She had come up well short in her three previous races -- the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos and the Grade III Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita.

"She's an honest filly," D'Amato said. "I always thought once she'd get her scenario it'd work out for her, and I think the longer the better. Umberto's been breezing her and her last drill was probably her best drill to date, so it all worked out."

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Adare Manor, another handoff from Baffert to Yakteen, won the Las Virgenes in her last start, by 13 lengths, after breaking her maiden over the same course in January by 12 lengths. Both earned enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Oaks.

Her rider, John Velazquez, said, "She just didn't run her A race. She broke slowly and was in a good position in the back stretch. But she just didn't run the way she usually does."

In New York, Nostalgic rallied up the rail to snatch her second straight victory in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Gazelle Stakes, securing a spot in the Kentucky Oaks for Godolphin and trainer Bill Mott.

Nostalgic, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, finished the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.41 with Jose Ortiz up. She struggled in her first three career starts, winning at first asking, but then beaten in the Grade II Demoiselle at the Big A and Grade III Sweetest Chant on the Gulfstream Park turf.

She broke through in a conditioned allowance race at Gulfstream Park March 3, winning by 6 3/4 lengths. Godolphin bloodstock director Michael Banahan said they will "swing for the fences a little" with Nostalgic in the Kentucky Oaks.

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"Obviously, she has to step up again," he said. "The Oaks field looks as deep as it has been in many years. She deserves her chance to win there and see how she stacks up against some of the best fillies in the country."

Turf / Turf Mile

Sy Dog came running from last of six to win Friday's $400,000 Grade III Kentucky Utilities Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3/4 length over Grand Sonata. Coinage was third.

Sy Dog, a Slumber colt who had been idle since November at Aqueduct, ran 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:45.38. Irad Ortiz Jr. had the mount for trainer Graham Motion. In a rarity, two colts entered by Chad Brown finished fourth and fifth.

City Man stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Danger's Hour Stakes at Aqueduct, got to the front with a three-wide move into the stretch and held off late-running Sanctuary City to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Value Proposition was third.

City Man, a 5-year-old by Mucho Macho Man, got 1 mile on good turf in 1:37.58 with Joel Rosario in the kip. The Christophe Clement trainee has spent much of his career running against fellow New York-breds.

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Filly & Mare Turf

Spendarella remained undefeated after three starts, winning Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Appalachian Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland by 1 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite.

After conceding the early lead, Spendarella raced just off the pace for jockey Tyler Gaffalione, easily worked to the front heading into the stretch run and drew off under confident handling. Dolce Zel was second with Skims third.

Spendarella, a daughter of Karakontie, won the Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her previous start -- a task trainer Graham Motion admitted was tossing her into the deep end off just a maiden win. Now, he said, there's talk of Royal Ascot in the filly's future.

Going Global stalked the early speed in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes at Santa Anita, took the lead when roused by jockey Umberto Rispoli and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Javanica, the early leader, held on for second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Excelerina.

Avenue de France completed the order of finish. Going Global, an Irish-bred, 4-year-old filly by Mehmas, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:33.97. It was her first start of the year after a 3-year-old span that found her victorious in six of eight starts, including the Grade I Del Mar Oaks.

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Cairo Memories shifted back to the turf for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita after finishing seventh, beaten 24 lengths, in the Grade III Santa Ysabella in her previous start.

The move paid off as the Cairo Prince filly led virtually gate to wire, drawing off late to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Sterling Crest. With Mike Smith up for trainer Robert Hess Jr., Cairo Memories got 1 1/8 miles on firm going in 1:47.33.

She won her first two starts on the turf but tried the dirt after finishing ninth, albeit beaten less than 3 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar.

Turf Sprint

Two-time Breeders' Cup winner Golden Pal romped in his 4-year-old debut Saturday at Keeneland, leading comfortably from the start in the $350,000 Grade II Shakertown Stakes and kicking away through the lane to win by 4 3/4 lengths.

Johnny Unleashed and Gear Jockey were second and third as Golden Pal and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. got 5 1/2 furlongs over good turf in 1:02.21.

Golden Pal, an Uncle Mo colt trained by Wesley Ward for the Coolmore connections in Ireland, scored his sixth win from nine starts and is headed back to England for the Group 1 King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot.

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He finished second, beaten a neck, in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes in the 2020 Royal Ascot meeting and was seventh in the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York in 2021 -- his only finish worse than second.

"This is the fastest of the fast," Ward said of Golden Pal. "He's just blessed with speed and agility. He moves like a cat, he's so quick. For a big, sturdy horse like he is -- he's just a once-in-a-lifetime horse."

Ward was foiled in another turf sprint bid as Slipstream ran by pacesetting favorite Twilight Gleaming in deep stretch to win Sunday's $200,000 Palisades Stakes at Keeneland by 3/4 length.

Both were making their first start since November when Twilight Gleaming, the Ward charge, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint and Slipstream finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

Ward took Twilight Gleaming to Europe for two engagements as a 2-year-old, finishing second in the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot, and then winning a minor stakes at Deauville in France before returning to contest the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar.

Both Twilight Gleaming and Slipstream are likely candidates for this year's Royal meeting.

At Santa Anita, Brooke Marie dueled with Alice Marble down the hillside turf course in the $200,000 Grade II Monrovia Stakes for fillies and mares, swapped the lead and finally prevailed by 1/2 length over that rival. Tobys Heart was third, another 1 3/4 lengths back.

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Brooke Marie, a 6-year-old mare by Lemon Drop Kid, finished the 6 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:13.42 with Juan Hernandez aboard. Trained by Eddie Kenneally, she was making her first California start after wintering at Fair Grounds where she won the Pan Zaretta Stakes in December.

Sprint

Speaker's Corner dueled his way to the lead in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and powered away to win by 4 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite.

The early foe, Reinvestment Risk, was second, 2 1/2 lengths in front of Mind Control. Speaker's Corner, a 4-year-old Godolphin homebred colt by Street Sense, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.34 with Junior Alvarado up for trainer Bill Mott.

The colt started the year with victories in the Grade III Fred W. Hooper and Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile and now has six wins from nine starts. He was assigned a 114 Beyer Speed figure -- the highest so far this year for any horse.

Godolphin's Michael Banahan said Sunday morning that the operation is looking forward to what Speaker's Corner can do in the Grade I Met Mile on Belmont Stakes day.

"It's a stallion-making race," bloodstock specialist Banahan said, "so hopefully he stays in good shape and continues to be in the condition that he's in at the moment. We'll go in there cautiously optimistic."

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Wit showed early promise for trainer Todd Pletcher last year, winning the Grade III Sanford at Saratoga. But then as the races got longer, he got found things harder and he was put away for the year after finishing third, beaten 9 lengths in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park.

He returned Saturday in the $200,000 Grade III Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct and found that 7 furlongs just right as he rallied to win by a nose over Highly Respected. The Practical Joke colt finished in 1:23.27 with Jose Ortiz aboard.

Pletcher said Sunday morning Wit came out of the race well and will target the $400,000 Grade I Woody Stephens at 7 furlongs on Belmont Stakes Day, June 11.

Prevalence took back early in Friday's $350,000 Grade III Commonwealth Stakes, put in his bid turning for home and got clear late to win by 2 1/4 lengths.

Long Range Toddy, a long shot, was always close and held on for second, a head in front of O Besos. Prevalence, a 4-year-old Godolphin homebred colt by Medaglia d'Oro, got 7 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:22.47 with Tyler Gaffalione riding for trainer Brendan Walsh. It was his fourth win from seven starts but first in a stakes race.

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Old Homestead, fresh from two awesome victories at Delta Downs, didn't miss a beat Friday at Keeneland, taking the early lead in the $400,000 Lafayette Stakes for 3-year-olds and holding on well to win by 3 3/4 lengths.

Surfer Dude was best of the rest, 1 length in front of Osbourne.

Old Homestead, an Overanalyze colt, ran 7 furlongs on a wet-fast track in 1:22.98 with Thomas Pompell up for trainer Brett Brinkman.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Just One Time was along just in time, from far back in the nine-horse field, to win Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Madison Stakes for fillies and mares at Keeneland by 3/4 length. Bell's the One was second, 3 lengths in front of Kimari.

Just One Time, a 4-year-old Not This Time filly, finished 7 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:22.79 for jockey Flavien Prat, winning for the sixth time in seven starts.

Several of those victories came over fellow Pennsylvania-breds but, after a trainer switch to Brad Cox, she stepped up to win the Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her previous outing.

Sunday at Keeneland, it was Matareya's turn to show them how it's done in the $100,000 Grade III Beaumont Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

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The Godolphin homebred daughter of Pioneerof the Nile, sent off the favorite, took the lead in the lane and drew off to win by 8 1/2 lengths, running about 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.55 for jockey Flavien Prat.

Radio Days came from last to beat the others. Matareya, also trained by Brad Cox, won for the third time in six starts, picking up her first graded stakes victory.

Glass Ceiling blew right by pacesetting Kept Waiting at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Distaff Handicap and kicked away to win by 5 lengths over that one. The odds-on favorite, Search Results, was another 8 1/2 lengths back in third.

Glass Ceiling, a 5-year-old Constitution mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.74 with Dylan Davis in the irons. She extended her win streak to three including the Grade III Barbara Fritchie at Laurel Park in her most recent.

Distaff

Exotic West, the longest shot in a well-matched field of five fillies and mares, got first run to the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Top Flight Invitational at Aqueduct and held off the favorite, Battle Bling, to win by 3/4 length.

Exotic West, a 4-year-old Hard Spun filly, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.13 with Javier Castellano in the irons. The one-time $40,000 claimer won for the second straight time.

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Around the ovals:

Santa Anita

Smuggler's Run survived a three-way pace duel in Saturday's $100,000 Echo Eddie Stakes for California-bred 3-year-olds and edged away to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Moose Mitchell and What In Blazes contested the pace and finished second and third.

Smuggler's Run, a Straight Fire gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.57 with Jersey Joe Bravo up.

In the companion $100,000 Evening Jewel Stakes for California-bred 3-year-old fillies, 76-1 shot Power Surge led all the way, under pressure through most of the 6 1/2 furlongs and held on to win a head over Connie Swingle. Big Novel was third, another 7 1/2 lengths back.

Power Surge, also by Straight Fire, finished in 1:16.87 for jockey Ricardo Gonzalez.

Sunday, Bran stalked the pace in the $75,000 Siren Lure Stakes, took a narrow late lead and won by 1/2 length over pacesetter Cotopaxi. Bran, a 4-year-old, French-bred gelding by Muhaarar, ran 6 1/5 furlongs on firm turf in 1:14.82 with Umberto Rispoli riding.

Royal Ship sailed down the stretch in Sunday's $75,000 John Shear Mile, drawing off to win by 5 lengths over Triple Tap. Royal Ship, a 6-year-old, Brazilian-bred gelding by Midshipman, finished in 1:36.07 on a fast track with Mike Smith up.

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Oaklawn Park

Whelen Springs got through between the front-runners turning for home in Saturday's $150,000 Rainbow Stakes for 3-year-olds Arkansas-breds and jetted off to win by 5 lengths. Ev's Sherman was best of the rest, with Bettys Cash, the favorite, checking in third.

Whelen Springs, a Shortleaf Stable homebred colt by Street Sense, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.23 with Gabriel Saez aboard.

Punchy Girl got in the last licks in the $150,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies, outfinishing Pattern Bet to win by a head. The early leader, Derby Day Lassie, settled for third. Punchy Girl, a daughter of Street Strategy, got home in 1:12.09 with Eric Gonzalez up.

Mahoning Valley

Country Club Bobby had 'em all the way in Saturday's $75,000 Howard B. Noonan Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-olds, picking up steam as he went along until he crossed the wire first by 3 3/4 lengths.

Mr Loooch was best of the rest, as Country Club Bobby, a Shanghai Bobby gelding, completed 6 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:11.42.

Around the world, around the clock

Japan

Sunday's Grade 1 Oka Sho or Japanese 1000 Guineas was seen as a rematch between last year's 2-year-old filly champ Circle of Life and Namur, winner of a top local prep for the Guineas.

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Instead, it was Stars on Earth shooting up between rivals to get the lead in the final strides and post a minor upset, defeating Water Navillera by a nose. Namur reported 10th and Circle of Life was fourth.

Stars on Earth, a Duramente filly, with Yuga Kawada up, had to fight through rivals to get a path to the lead and endured some bumping along the way.

"I'm just so glad that she actually snatched the win at the end," Kawada said. "I knew we had caught up, but couldn't tell who'd won."

The race, first leg of the Japanese Filly Triple Crown, was contested at 1,600 meters at the Hanshin Racecourse -- the longest distance Stars on Earth has yet tackled.

The Triple Crown continues with the 2,400-meter Japanese Oaks next month at Toyko Racecourse and finishes with the 2,000-meter Shuka Sho at Hanshin in October.

Australia

It was a parade of long shots Saturday at Royal Randwick with three of the stunning winners sired by So You Think.

Think It Over, at odds of 40-1, swung all the way out to the stands-side rail and rallied through the final 50 meters to get home first in the Group 1 Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes, edging Zaaki by 1/2 length.

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The favorite, Verry Elleegant, was relegated to fifth, beaten by 6 1/2 lengths.

Think It Over, a 6-year-old So You Think gelding, won for the second time this season after three straight defeats. Verry Elleegant, winner of 11 Group 1 races, had been targeted for a potential trip to England and on to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October, but no further word was forthcoming after her loss.

Nimalee, at 30-1 odds, cruised home first in the Group 1 Sydney's Queen of the Turf Stakes, 2 1/4 lengths in front of Annivista with the favorite Colette, struggling home last of 14.

Nimalee, a 5-year-old So You Think mare, had not won in just more than a year, repeatedly finishing behind Colette, when she lined up for Saturday's race.

Knight's Order, under Rachel King, finished first by 2 lengths after the 2 miles of the Group 1 Schweppes Sydney Cup. The 7-year-old So You Think gelding, went off at 15-1 odds after failing to find the winner's enclosure in three previous starts this season. The favorite, Crystal Pegasus flew home ninth in the Sydney Cup.

El Patroness started the string of stunners with a 2 1/2-lengths score in the Group 1 The Star Australian Oaks. No, she was not sired by So You Think but by Shamus Award. The Oaks favorite, Hinged, reported fourth.

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