It’s always nice to be able to say “I knew them when.” Considering there are literally thousands of thoroughbreds currently in training, it comes as a badge of honor to be able to say you saw a future champion run in his maiden race, or his first stakes victory. If you go to enough tracks, you’ll quickly realize, there really aren’t that many fantastic race horses. Happening upon a “real good one” is like stumbling upon a needle in a haystack. That’s why I can’t help watching every 2-year-old race that I can, in the hopes of catching an early flash of something special.
My trips to California have been extremely lucky in that respect. In the summer of 2009, I just happened to catch the maiden race of a bay colt named Lookin at Lucky on my second day ever to Hollywood Park. And when I made my first trip to Santa Anita that winter, besides being able to take in the already-legendary Zenyatta and Lava Man, I got to see the first stakes victory by a filly named Evening Jewel. My love for Lookin at Lucky has been barely veiled in this column, but Evening Jewel’s star, fittingly, has been overlooked by flashier horses.
Sold for a mere $8,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2008, Evening Jewel has proven her class since being privately purchased by Tom and Marilyn Braly as a 2-year-old. After breaking her maiden last November at Santa Anita, Evening Jewel immediately went to slug it out with the boys in her next start, and was defeated by Caracortado in her final start at less than a 1-mile distance. Caracortado and Evening Jewel both raced at Santa Anita on December 27 in their next starts, and they both won their respective juvenile stakes. It was that day I saw these promising 2-year-olds in person, and I’ll never forget how Evening Jewel was all-out, head down, chugging along like a filly that knew how to reach out over a distance.
Though she wasn’t able to win her next two races, one being her first encounter with future rival Blind Luck, the other against a good filly in Crisp, Evening Jewel finished second in both bouts and triumphed with her first Grade I win in her next start, the Ashland at Keeneland. After that, it was on to her debut on dirt—Churchill Downs—in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks against, who else, but Crisp and Blind Luck. As the full field of 14 fillies came turning for home, Evening Jewel looked to have the race won. As a matter of fact, standing across from the 1/16th pole like I was, she appeared home free. But then came the furious charge from out of the clouds by the tenacious Blind Luck, and a photo had to separate them at the wire to prove Blind Luck was a nose better. A heartbreaking loss, yes, but a valiant 2nd-best effort to a filly who went on to win the Delaware Oaks and the Alabama over tested foes.
Since that close loss to Blind Luck, Evening Jewel knocked off a 3-win race streak on the turf—the Grade II Honeymoon Handicap, the Grade II San Clemente Handicap, and the Grade I Del Mar Oaks. When interviewed by the press, owner Tom Braly spoke about how his thrilling filly kept him going in his fight against cancer. But Evening Jewel’s victory at Del Mar would be the last race Braly would witness before he lost that fight.
Evening Jewel will be making her first start since that race in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes, a 1-1/8th mile test to be contested over the turf at Keeneland this Saturday. The race will mark one of her biggest challenges to date, as she will face Check the Label, who is on a 4-race win streak of her own, and Harmonious, the late-flying runner-up in the Del Mar Oaks that came a half-length away from Evening Jewel on the wire. Victor Espinoza, who rode Evening Jewel to her past three victories, will fly in for the James Cassidy-trainee.
The QE II is sure to be a bittersweet race for Marilyn Braly. So many times, Evening Jewel prevailed to give her husband the boost he needed. But this Saturday, the filly will be attempting to win in his honor. Win or lose, Evening Jewel has proven herself to be one of the top female horses in the country, and that’s a legacy the Bralys can most certainly be proud of.
The Grade IT Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes will air live from Keeneland Racecourse on TVG at approximately 4:43pm ET.