Hard Not to Like returned in top form after an eight-month layoff and won the Grade 3, $100,000 Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
The four-year-old filly was making her first start since the Kentucky Oaks last year. She underwent surgery last summer to remove a chip from her knee and was transferred to Michael Matz's barn.
Because of this, she only ran twice last year, although both Grade 1 races running against top competition. The concern with her going into the race was her form, as her recent works didn't show she was primed for stakes competition yet.
But she proved everyone wrong: She closed at 7/1 odds as the sixth betting choice out of eight participants.
The field was shortened to eight after the scratches of Filare l'Oro and Fantasy of Flight. But it was the scratching of the latter one that had bettors thinking on the possible impact it could have on the outcome of the race.
Fantasy of Flight was expected to be the early pressure up front for likely pace-setter Frontside. Without her in the lineup, Frontside had a clear shot at an easy lead and possibly going gate to wire.
And at the beginning, it appeared that way, as jockey Joel Rosario sent Frontside to the lead and took the first quarter fractions in an easy 24.81 and a four-length lead.
She continued to set the pace comfortably in the backstretch, as Channel Lady with Javier Castellano had been tracking her since the start.
Hard Not to Like, with Joseph Rocco Jr. aboard, stalked the front runners down on the rail after slightly bobbling at the start.
Apparently, both Castellano and Rocco Jr. were not concerned with Frontside's easy lead, as they were running their races right behind her.
As they reached the final turn, both Channel Lady, on the outside, and Hard Not to Like, on the rail, started to get closer to the leader, getting to her just before they reached the top of the stretch.
As they turned for home, Channel Lady had taken the lead over Hard Not to Like, who squeezed through on the rail and still had a seam inside to engage the leader.
Rocco Jr. pointed Hard Not to Like through the rail on the inside of Channel Lady, and even when at moments his filly looked tight, she squeezed through under Rocco Jr.'s powerful urging and went on to win by half a length.
It was 2.5 lengths back to Leading Astray, who came from the back of the pack to finish third. Chokurei (IRE) found traffic and had to circle to field five-wide before finding her best stride late to finish fourth.
Pace-setter Frontside finished fifth, and last year's winner, Heavenly Landing, finished sixth after being a non-factor throughout the race.
Hard Not to Like was running against top-graded competition before she took her prolonged layoff, and with this demonstration, she showed she is ready to go for the bigger races.
Now it will be up to trainer Michael Matz to maintain her form.
|Race Name: Marshua's River S. (Grade: 3)|
|Age Restriction: Four-Year-Old and Upward|
|Sex Restriction: Fillies and Mares|
|Distance: One-and-One-Sixteenth Miles on the Turf|
|Track Condition: Firm|
|Winning Time: 1:41.70 Fractions: 24.81, 48.91, 1:12.92, 1:35.95|
|9||Hard Not to Like||Joseph Rocco, Jr.||17.60||7.60||4.00|
|6||Channel Lady||Javier Castellano||4.00||3.00|
|1||Leading Astray||Jose Lezcano||2.80|
|Also Ran: 2—Chokurei (IRE) , 7—Frontside , 5—Heavenly Landing , 3—Frolic's Revenge , 4—Affair Dabbler|
|Scratched Horses: Filare l'Oro (Trainer) , Fantasy of Flight (Trainer)|
|Winning Owner: Garland Williamson|
|Winning Trainer: Michael R. Matz|
|Winning Breeder: Garland E. Williamson|
|Wager Type||Winning Numbers||Payoff|
|$1 Pick 3||6-8-9 (3 correct)||100.00|
|$2 Daily Double||8-9||74.40|