I’d been assigned to cover the Eight Belles on Oaks Day, a race in which my focus was on Arienza, Azeri’s first foal who’d won her first two starts before losing to the dominant Joyful Victory in the Fantasy Stakes.
Watching from the rail, disappointed that Arienza was never a threat, I had to check my program to identify the filly flying on the outside, who’d been invisible for most of the race, who cruised from last to win by two and a quarter lengths.
Victoria’s Wildcat. 6-1. Silly me.
She’d started her career in California last summer, running fourth twice over Del Mar’s Polytrack. She didn’t like the Poly at Keeneland any better, finishing fourth there in October. Mike Smith rode her in her second start, and according to trainer Bob Hess, the jockey had one piece of advice after the loss: “You gotta get her on the dirt.”
“It’s been a different ball game ever since,” said Hess.
Victoria’s Wildcat (Bellamy Road – Flaming Mirage) was second by a neck at Churchill Downs in October, and then won three races in a row, at Churchill and Gulfstream, including the Grade 3 Eight Belles.
“We loved her and she was so disappointing on synthetic that I thought maybe I was wrong,” said Hess. “Dirt’s really the answer.”
She shipped to New York after that graded stakes win, to prepare for the Acorn or the Mother Goose. In late May, Hess still wasn’t sure where she’d go next.
“She came out of the Eight Belles healthy from a leg and head standpoint,” he said outside his barn on Belmont’s backstretch, “but she’d lost a little weight going into that race, when we vanned her from Florida to Kentucky, and even since then, she’s just kind of maintained what she is. I really need her to beef up to be able to do what we were hoping to do, which is run in the Mother Goose or the Acorn.”
He acknowledged that neither of them would be an easy spot: both are Grade 1 races. The Mother Goose is longer than he’d like, but in the Acorn, their first choice, they’d have to face Turbulent Descent.
“Victoria’s just a little light; she’s elegant and dainty, with a kind of supermodel look. She was light in her last race and she won in spite of it, but at that kind of level and against those kind of horses, we want to be A+,” he said. “The extra two weeks for the Mother Goose would be great, but pace-wise I think the 1-turn mile would work out beautifully for Victoria.”
The filly apparently lives, at times, up to her name. “She’s kind of a wildcat around the barn,” Hess observed. “In the stall, she’s a queen, but in the shedrow, she’ll run over you. At Churchill, I actually had to get on her off side because the groom couldn’t handle her walking from the barn to the paddock. I had to use my 250 pounds on the right side to hold her back.
“The funny thing was, when we got into the box, she fell asleep and was perfect to saddle. I was scared she was going to lose it, now I’m scared she’s in a coma, and then we put the rider up and she perks up again.
“I think she knows when to turn it on, when to turn it up. She’s really smart.”
Assistant trainer Matthew Lomas concurs. “She had her game face on that day for sure. The Eight Belles was race of her life; she could have won the Oaks if she’d run that race. When she went straight, once she got to the outside, once she got through the traffic, she just went…” Sound effects and hand gesture mimic an airplane taking off.
This week at Belmont, Hess confirmed that Victoria’s Wildcat will run in the Acorn this Saturday. “We’re definitely going,” he said Monday morning. “She’s been working great. Her weight is still not great, but she’s going the right way.”
Perusing the past performances of possible starters, he once again acknowledged the dominance of Turbulent Descent, and then notes the lack of pace in the race – not a good scenario for his deep-closing filly. Pragmatism mixes with hope as he discusses Victoria’s Wildcat’s chances.
“Realistically,” he said, “a Grade 1 placing would be great for her value. Running second to Turbulent would be an honor; to beat her would be fun.”
The possibility of rain this week and an off-track is good news, bad news for him. “She’s bred to love an off track, though she’s never run on one. Her foot’s like a little deer foot, with a big concavity underneath it; her feet are narrow like a lot of mudders have. I think she’d probably love it.”
“I don’t love it,” he added, “because you expose your horse to possible injury.”
Victoria’s Wildcat has been at Belmont since just after the Kentucky Derby, and she’s got three recorded works over the track; Hess schooled her paddock in the last week. “We have home field advantage,” he said “We’ve worked here a bunch, and we’ve got a lot of positives.”