Bittersweet does not quite suffice, as both the bitter and sweet of Friday at Churchill Downs were palpable. Shadwell Stable's Malathaat, carrying the colours of the late HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, stretched her long neck across the finish line first in Friday's Grade 1, $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks, just five weeks after her owner--the leader of the global powerhouse Shadwell operation--passed at age 75.
Trained by 2021 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame finalist Todd Pletcher and ridden by 2012 inductee John Velazquez, the blue-blooded $1.05 million Keeneland September 2019 purchase provided some solace for connections still feeling the sting of mourning such a global racing icon--a leader known for his generosity, kindness and tangible passion for the sport of horse racing. The race itself, America's top race for fillies, was a first for any member of the Maktoum Family in the classic.
"A million things have been going through my mind," said Rick Nichols, Vice President and General Manager of Kentucky's Shadwell Farm and HH Sheikh Hamdan's longtime friend and employee. "The victory for Sheikh Hamdan's family and all of our operations in the United States, (as well as) Derrinstown in Ireland, Shadwell Estate in England and all of his horses in Dubai--all the stables. I know they were all watching it. We heard that there's several people in Dubai that stayed up late hours to watch. You know, losing the boss the way we did and him coming off a great year, he was the leading owner in Europe last year--and we have many good horses in our stable this year. And having Malathaat to step up and give him an Oaks win is, you know, more than we could ask for.
"Sheikh Hamdan, to racing, was such an influence in England, Ireland and the United States," Nichols continued. "He was so supportive. He loved the sport. Even in his advanced years, he didn't lose his passion for it. I remember last year, when he was talking about (Battaash) and comparing him with Dayjur, you could just see the passion coming out of him that he was sure Dayjur was better because Dayjur was a 3 year old (when winning multiple Group 1s). Personally, June 1st, I have worked for him 36 years. He was a very, very close friend. He was a lot of times a father figure, sometimes like a brother (and) sometimes like a friend--but he was always the boss. I loved him dearly. He'll always be missed."
The race was not an easy one for the daughter of Curlin. She and Velazquez were squeezed at the start and appeared to have to fight for the victory in the end. Her pilot, though, indicated after the race that the margin of victory was a bit deceptive. She forged ahead of chief market rival Search Results from the powerful Chad Brown stable and held her rival by a measured neck at the wire.
"She didn’t get away the best, but I got a spot with her," Velazquez. "She was running well and when I turned for home, I had a target (Search Results) to send her after. We got up next to her and my filly went by. Then she waited a bit; she does that. The other filly came back but I could tell I was still in control. I never thought I was going to do anything but win.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who was recently brought into the fold of training under the Shadwell banner, had trained Malathaat's mother, Dreaming of Julia, to finish fourth as the 3-2 favourite in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks after a troubled start from which she never recovered. The win was Pletcher's 165th Grade 1, an astounding number. On Saturday morning, he was very pleased with how she came out of the race and did confirmed that races such as the Belmont Stakes (G1) are possible for the five-for-five charge.
"She got away from there just a bit slow, but Johnny moved her up and got her in a much better position," Pletcher reflected. "He had to lose some ground and go wide to do it, but it was the right thing to do. She wants a target to run at and she got one here. (I'm) delighted with the outcome.”
"She came out excellent," he continued. "We honestly thought she would be this good because in the beginning she trained brilliantly, even before her debut. She won impressively there and just improved. Like I've said, she's just a star. She'll go to Belmont at some point, but we'll see how the Derby plays out with our other horses and decide from there."
Pletcher also expressed pleasure with the runner-up performance of Shadwell's Ajaaweed, who ran admirably in his first try at a distance of ground, going close in the 11-furlong Flat Out Stakes (Listed). He, too, could turn up at New York's Belmont Stakes Racing Festival during the first weekend of June.
"I think we found what he's been looking for and really loved the we he finished up going a mile and three-eighths," Pletcher said. "Hopefully we will run him in the (Grade 2) Brooklyn Handicap over a mile and a half next out."
Malathaat wins the G1 Kentucky Oaks under John Velazquez, Coady Photo