The fields are set, and the excitement is building at Sam Houston Race Park for its most prestigious event of the 2021 Thoroughbred racing season. The Houston Racing Festival will take place on Sunday, January 31 with a special afternoon post time of 1:45 pm (CT). The ten-race card includes six stakes, highlighted by the Grade 3, $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic.
Now in its ninth running, the Houston Ladies Classic, at a mile and one-sixteenth on the main track, has been a springboard for top older fillies and mares, and once again, attracted a highly competitive field.
Defending champion Lady Apple is a 5-year-old daughter of Curlin out of the Clever Trick mare Miss Mary Apples owned by Phoenix Thoroughbred III and KatieRich Farms. Trained by Hall of Fame conditioner Steve Asmussen, the Kentucky-bred mare has won six of her 18 starts with earnings of $1,045,984. One year ago, she closed gamely to defeating a contentious field which included 2019 Kentucky Oaks champion Serengeti Empress and Street Band. Following her victory, Asmussen shipped her to Oaklawn Park where she competed in both the Grade 2, Azeri and Grade 1, Apple Blossom. Her third place finish in last month’s Spanky Broussard at Fair Grounds served as a solid prep for her return to Sam Houston Race Park, where she will break from post position four under veteran rider Stewart Elliott at odds of 4-1.
“She needed that race, and I had no problem with the result,” said Asmussen. “Lady Apple is a quality filly who loves the track surface at Sam Houston and is training really well.”
Letruska, bred and owned by St. George Stable, LLC, has been installed as the even-money favorite. The 5-year-old mare by Super Saver out of the Successful Appeal mare Magic Appeal, has won 11 of her 15 career efforts including the Grade 3, Shuvee last August at Saratoga. She exits a victory last month in the Grade 3, $100,000 Rampart at Gulfstream Park and when her trainer Fausto Gutierrez began planning her 5-year-old campaign, he felt that the Houston Ladies Classic would be an ideal beginning.
“She’s a filly with a great deal of speed,” explained Gutierrez. “We removed the blinkers and felt that she finished much better. I ran at Sam Houston twenty years ago and know it has an excellent track surface. They have always attracted quality fields for the Ladies Classic and I feel that this will be a perfect start for her year. Our plan is to head to Oaklawn Park and point to the (Grade 1) Apple Blossom.”
Letruska was flown from South Florida to New Orleans and vanned from Fair Grounds to Sam Houston Race Park early Sunday morning. Jockey Jesus Castanon has the call aboard the bay mare and will break from post position seven.
Asmussen will also saddle Motion Emotion for owners MyRacehorse.com and Spendthrift Farm LLC. The 5-year-old mare sired by Take Charge Indy has topped the half-million dollar mark in her 16 career starts and will be ridden by Miguel Mena at odds of 7-2. Sunday’s race will be her first start since running fourth in the Grade 1, Personal Ensign at Saratoga. She has been stabled at Asmussen’s Sam Houston barn all month, with a solid work tab, including two bullet drills on January 16 and 23.
“She’s been training like a steam engine,” declared Asmussen. “We are fortunate that Spendthrift bought her at the Night of the Stars Sale (on November 8) and look forward to running her in the Ladies Classic.”
The victory by Motion Emotion or Lady Apple would vault Asmussen into the record books as the only conditioner to win three editions of the Houston Ladies Classic. Asmussen, who is nominated for Eclipse Award winning trainer honors along with Brad Cox and Bob Baffert, won with Midnight Bisou in 2019. The remarkable champion went on to capture five Grade 1 stakes, banking $7.4 million and was honored as 2019 Eclipse Award winning Older Female. Larry Jones is the only other trainer to win two Ladies Classic titles.
Jeweled Princess is on target to ship to Houston and represent owners Walking L Thoroughbreds of The Woodlands, Texas. Trained by Kenny McPeek, the 4-year-filly by Cairo Prince, earned her fourth career win on December 18 at Remington Park when she captured the $75,000 She’s All In Stakes. Jockey Reylu Gutierrez has the call at odds of 8-1. He joined the Sam Houston jockey colony this year and is off to an excellent start, ranked second behind veteran Stewart Elliott. McPeek won the 2004 Great State Challenge Distaff at Sam Houston Race Park with Take Charge Lady as well as victories in the Maxxam Gold Cup with Unstoppable U in 2013 and Blueridge Traveler in 2018.
Trainer Michael Maker has entered Ujayji, a 5-year-old mare by Smarty Jones for her breeder and owner T. L. Wise. The Pennsylvania-bred mare exits a third-place finish in the $100,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct on January 17. She brings a record of four wins, four seconds and four thirds from 19 starts with earnings of $293,090. She drew post position three under rider Rafael Manuel Hernandez at odds of 6-1.
Trainer Tom Amoss who ran second in last year’s edition of the race with Serengeti Empress will send in Figure It Out, a 5-year-old Paynter mare, owned by Joe Politi. She began her year with an impressive allowance score at Fair Grounds on January 1 prior to running sixth in the $150,000 Pippin Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Saturday. He has given the call to Houston-based rider Lane Luzzi, who is currently tied for third in the standings. This will be the third time Amoss has shipped in for the Houston Ladies Classic. He ran fifth in the 2015 edition of the race with Kiss to Remember.
Trainer Scott Gelner will saddle Norman Racing Stables, LLC’s Shes Our Fastest who drew post position six and will be ridden by Ry Eikleberry. The Texas-bred daughter of Oratory has won five stakes in Texas and Louisiana, including the 2019 Texas Rose Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park. The 6-year-old mare has earned $344,537 in her 29 lifetime starts.
Inaugurated in 2013, the Houston Ladies Classic was awarded its graded status by the American Graded Stakes Committee in 2016. It anchors the annual Houston Racing Festival, which also includes the Grade 3, $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup, the $200,000 Texas Turf, the $100,000 Pulse Power Turf Sprint, the $75,000 Jersey Lilly Turf Stakes and the $75,000 Stonerside Sprint.
Sam Houston Race Park is Houston’s premier racing and entertainment facility, located just 15 miles from downtown Houston. The Park offers a variety of attractions including a Suite Level featuring luxurious suites overlooking the racetrack, The Pavilion Centre, and award-winning dining options at the Winner’s Circle Restaurant and the Jockey Club. For more information on upcoming live racing, shows, events and tickets, please visit www.shrp.com.