ARCADIA, CA – After spending several minutes refusing to pony around the track, Hard Not to Love unleashed all of her energy in the stretch run, shooting past odds-on favorite Bellafina to win Saturday’s $300,000 La Brea Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park.

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Breaking from post 7 under Mike Smith at 11/1 odds, Hard Not to Love – who lost her left eye early in life after a paddock accident – was slow into stride and trailed early. On the front end, the 3/5 bettors’ choice Bellafina blitzed ahead before setting scorching fractions of :21.70 and :44.41.

With Mother Mother closely tracking her from the outside, Bellafina turned for home with a narrow advantage. Mother Mother made a bid at the top of the stretch, but Bellafina fought back gamely.

Unbeknownst to either horse’s jockey, Smith had tipped his filly out wide for the run to the wire and was beginning to gobble up ground tremendously. Hard Not to Love shot past the front-runners at the 1/16 pole before drawing off convincingly for the victory.

Trained by John Shirreffs, Hard Not to Love finished 2 1/4 lengths ahead in a final time of 1:22.17 for the 7-furlong sprint over the fast main track.

Credit: Benoit Photo

“It’s quite a feat,” said Smith, who tied Jerry Bailey for most career Grade 1 stakes wins with the victory. “It is something that is going to go up there as one of my greatest achievements. Just to equal a guy like Jerry Bailey is amazing. He’s someone I’ve looked up to for years.”

Regarding Smith’s uncharacteristic arm-pumping motion as he crossed the wire, he said, “That was actually Jerry’s celebration, out of respect.”

Bellafina’s quick early speed did her no favors in the end, though she was able to turn Mother Mother away late and beat her by a length for second.

“The outside horse (Mother Mother) was sort of pressing me on the pace a little bit, but nevertheless, she was comfortable,” said Victor Espinoza, a gameday replacement for scheduled rider Flavien Prat, who took off all Saturday mounts with an illness. “When we were heading for home around the 1/8 pole, she was still running, but then, in the blink of an eye, I was like, ‘Wow, what happened?'”

First Star was 4 1/2 lengths behind in fourth and a length ahead of Bell’s the One. Del Mar MayStirred, and Free Cover completed the order of finish.

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Hard Not to Love’s win was her fourth in five career appearances, with her lone defeat coming when she finished third in the local 7-furlong Angels Flight Stakes on May 4. The Ontario-bred 3-year-old daughter of Hard Spun is a half-sister to the 2018 Queen’s Plate Stakes and Canadian Horse of the Year Wonder Gadot.

With the victory, Hard Not to Love has now earned $288,480 for co-owners Mercedes Stables, West Point Thoroughbreds, Scott Dilworth, Dorothy Ingordo, David Ingordo, and Steve Mooney.

“She was really a handful going to the gate,” Shirreffs said about Hard Not to Love’s unwillingness to budge during the post parade. “She only has the one eye, and when she gets nervous, she tends to spin around to see. This was a great race to win. For a filly to win a Grade 1, that’s like a PhD, so it makes it especially fulfilling.”

Hard Not to Love returned $25.20 to win, $6.60 to place, and $4.20 to show. Bellafina brought back $2.40 to place and $2.10 to show, while Mother Mother paid $3.60 to show.