At the Kentucky Oaks two weeks ago, Aztec Hill got a bit fractious in the gate at Churchill Downs and never recovered. After winning her previous two races, trainer Tom Bohannan's filly finished a distant and disappointing seventh.
"When she got out of the gate in the Oaks, she didn't want to run, but today was just the opposite," Bohannan said yesterday at Pimlico. "She came out with nothing but running on her mind."
And winning. With a tremendous rush in the homestretch that was reminiscent of some of her earlier victories this year, Aztec Hill chased down and then held off Traverse City by a half-length and Jacody, a neck behind in third, to win the $200,000 Grade II Black-Eyed Susan Stakes in 1 minute, 49 3/5 seconds.
The victory, which was worth $120,000, was the fourth in six starts this year for Aztec Hill, the sixth in 11 overall. Just as significant, it was a good omen for Loblolly Stable going into today's Preakness Stakes.
It was certainly a positive sign for jockey Michael Smith, who will be on Loblolly's Prairie Bayou, the Preakness favorite. It was also a good day for Smith, who later rode Lure to victory for Shug McGaughey in the Early Times Dixie Stakes.
"She's [Aztec Hill] the same kind of horse as Prairie Bayou," said Smith, who will be looking to follow last year's winning Preakness jockey, Chris McCarron, who rode Loblolly's Pine Bluff to victory. "It was nice to see the track as fair as it was. It's not real fast, but it was just right. I hope it's the same tomorrow."
Unlike in the Oaks, Aztec Hill got into and came out of the gate smoothly, but she stayed four to five lengths off what had been C moderately slow pace in the 1 1/8 -mile race. The pace was set by Cormorant's Flight, a 10-1 shot.
But after leading for the first half-mile in a time of 23 3/5 seconds and being passed at the three-eighths pole by Jacody, Cormorant's Flight faded, finishing fifth. It didn't come as a total surprise to her jockey, Mike Luzzi.
"She usually breaks well, and she did today," said Luzzi, the second-leading jockey at Pimlico this year. "It wasn't a blistering pace. It was actually pretty slow for these kind of horses. When the other two horses passed her, she kind of gave it up a little."
Robert Thibeau Jr., who rode Jacody, said he thought his horse had enough left after taking the lead. But he wasn't surprised to see Aztec Hill come charging along the outside.
"She was the [9-5] favorite," Thibeau said of Aztec Hill. "If anybody was going to be coming, it was going to be her."
The only other horse with a chance was Traverse City, who had come through on the rail. But her move came a little too late. Still, it was a satisfying race for jockey Julie Krone despite the fact that Traverse City had a three-race winning streak broken.
"She got bothered a little bit down the backside," said Krone. "But I thought she ran a real good race. It wasn't so much that somebody bothered her, she just got squeezed back a little bit, and couldn't get through as fast I wanted."
Aztec Hill could.
Smith said he had a good feeling about the race when his horse moved into the starting gate, just as he had a less-than-terrific feeling two weeks ago at Churchill Downs.
"Every time she stands real good in the gate, she runs her race," said Smith. "She seemed to do that today."
It proved to be a good omen.
And perhaps the start of another big Preakness weekend for John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable.