150th Kentucky Derby
May 4th, 2024
Jan 25, 2018


Houston Racing Festival with Six Stakes Gets Underway at 12 Noon

HOUSTON, TX – An exceptional field of eight fillies and mares is entered in Sunday’s Grade 3, $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic, the richest race of the Sam Houston Race Park Thoroughbred meet.  Post time is Sunday at Noon (Central) for the Houston Racing Festival which also includes the Grade 3, $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup and four additional undercard stakes. 

This year's edition of the Houston Ladies Classic enticed several new owners, trainers and jockeys. In its sixth running, previous winners include Joyful Victory, Unbridled Mo and Forever Unbridled, the 2016 champion, who will likely be honored as Older Female champion in Thursday’s Eclipse Awards at Gulfstream Park. 

Stonestreet Stables LLC's homebred Valadorna has been pointing to the Houston Ladies Classic since early December. The 4-year-old daughter of Curlin had a solid 2-year-old campaign, running second in the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. She suffered an injury early last year and was sidelined for seven months, returning to action  on November 1 at Churchill Downs and winning her last two races at Fair Grounds. Following her victory in the $50,000 Tiffany Lass on December 26, trainer Mark Casse was satisfied that Valadorna would be ready for the Houston Ladies Classic. 

“She’s was an exceptional filly as a 2-year-old,” stated Casse, who is in Florida for the Eclipse Awards. “It took us a while to get her on track last year when she suffered a condylar fracture and required a screw in her ankle. She came back in wonderful shape and we look forward to a good effort.” 

Casse, who has tabbed Brian Hernandez, Jr. to ride the Kentucky-bred filly, was impressed with the depth of this year’s field for the Houston Ladies Classic. 

“This is a different kettle of fish and might be her toughest race since the Breeders’ Cup,” added Casse. “It’s not easy to win a race of this caliber, but she’s confident right now and we love the Sam Houston Race Park track surface.” 

Last year, owners Gary and Mary West shipped in Family Tree, a Smart Strike filly, who ran third to Red Oak Stable’s Unbridled Mo. This year, the Wests will be represented by Actress, a 4-year-old Tapit filly, trained by Jason Servis.  She has bankrolled close to $400,000 and ships to Houston off an impressive eight-length romp in the Grade 3 Comely on November 24 at Aqueduct. Jose Ortiz, one of the finalists for Eclipse Award Jockey of the Year, has the mount. He made his Sam Houston Race Park debut last January, winning three stakes, including the Houston Ladies Classic.

“She is versatile in her running style,” said Servis. “She’s a nice filly and we are fortunate to have Jose, who is likely to win the Eclipse, riding. “Breaking from one of the outside posts, she may have to hustle, but I am sure Jose will find a spot.”

Trainer Doug O’Neill has shipped in Sandy’s Surprise for owners STD Racing, John Fuller and Neil Haynes. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Drosselmeyer won the $300,000 Zia Park Oaks on November 22 at Zia Park in Hobbs, New Mexico. 

“This was the original plan after we were fortunate in her previous out-of-town race,” O’Neill told Mary Rampellini of the Daily Racing Form. “We think we’ve got her right on target to run a big race.” 

Southern California-based jockey Mario Gutierrez rode the chestnut filly to victory in the Zia Park Oaks and was impressed with her turn of foot. 

“I tried to go to the lead, but it got a little tight, so I had to wait a little more than I wanted,” said Gutierrez. “In the stretch she opened up and she kicked home well. Doug and I have amazing team work, so I talked to him and he told me to ride the filly like you own her. It gave me a lot of confidence." 

Tiger Moth, bred and owned by John D. Gunther will ship in from the Fair Grounds barn of Brad Cox. The 6-year-old mare by Street Sense has tested tough waters at Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park and Keeneland, winning six of her 21 starts. Jockey Florent Geroux will guide the dark bay mare from the far outside post. 

“The post should not be a problem as she does her best running from off the pace,” said Cox. “She’s been training well and with a clean trip, I believe Florent will do the rest.” 

It will be a monumental week for Hall of Fame conditioner Steve Asmussen, who is in South Florida for the Eclipse Awards and to saddle Gun Runner in Saturday’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.  He has entered Winchell Thoroughbred LLC’s Adore in the Houston Ladies Classic. The 5-year-old mare sired by Big Brown, is stakes-placed with career earnings of $240,146. Asmussen has been honored as leading trainer in Houston nine times; Iram Diego, who has topped the local rider standings for the past two years, will ride Adore.


“We wanted to be represented and support Sam Houston Race Park,” said Asmussen. “Maybe even create some Houston magic! It’s a very good field and she will have to run the race of her life, but we’re proud to be part of it.” 

The Houston Ladies Classic field, in post position order, with riders is: Ready to Confess, David Cabrera; Martini Glass, Paco Lopez; Promise of Spring, Robby Albarado; Valadorna, Brian Hernandez, Jr.; Adore, Iram Diego; Sandy's Surprise, Mario Gutierrez; Actress,  Jose Ortiz and Tiger Moth, Florent Geroux. 

The first running of the Houston Ladies Classic in 2013 was formed to serve as the marquee race for Sam Houston Race Park’s Thoroughbred racing season. It was awarded its graded status by the American Graded Stakes Committee in December, 2015 and remains the richest Thoroughbred race in Texas. The Houston Ladies Classic will be the first stakes of the Penn Gaming Racing Challenge. Now in its fifth year, it will incorporate over 20 stakes races in 2018 worth over $5.5 million.  


"In just its sixth running, and third year as a graded stakes, the Houston Ladies Classic has attracted one of our toughest group of fillies and mares," said Matt Crawford, Sam Houston Race Park's racing secretary. "We look forward to presenting a quality day of racing and getting the Penn Gaming Challenge off to a great start." 

The first of the six stakes, the $75,000 Frontier Utilities Turf Sprint, will run as race 6, followed by the $50,000 Bara Lass; $50,000 Groovy Stakes, the Grade 3, $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup, the Grade 3, $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic and the $50,000 Houston Distaff.  

Sam Houston Race Park, Houston’s premier racing and entertainment facility, is located just 15 miles from downtown Houston, and offers a variety of attractions including 16 luxury suites overlooking the race track, The Pavilion Centre, and award-winning dining options at the Winner’s Circle Restaurant and Jockey Club.  For more information on upcoming shows, events and tickets, please visit www.shrp.com.


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Photo of Valadorna:  Hodges Photography