NEW ORLEANS, LA – A journey that began in November 1995 when Valid Expectations won the Old Hickory reached its zenith Saturday at Fair Grounds when trainer Steve Asmussen set a remarkable milestone, winning his 100th career stakes at the local oval when Team Hanley and Parkland Thoroughbreds’ Joy’s Rocket beat Mariah’s Princess by 1 1/2 lengths in the $75,000 Letellier Memorial for 2-year-old fillies.
Joy’s Rocket had shown plenty of speed in her first five starts but settled into an outside stalking position under Ricardo Santana Jr. as longshot Double Whopper set the early pace. Joy’s Rocket took the lead entering the far turn and was quickly engaged by 2.90 second-choice Mariah’s Princess, who appeared to get on even terms in early stretch but succumbed late, with the winner getting 6 furlongs in 1:10.17 as the .80-1 favorite. Charlie’s Penny rallied for third.
For Asmussen, the win was just another milestone in a career full of them, as the Gettysburg, South Dakota native has won three Triple Crown races, six Breeders’ Cup races and the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer in 2008-09. He owns over 9,000 wins, and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2016. The Letellier wasn’t his only milestone win at Fair Grounds. Earlier this year he captured the 1,000th stakes of his career here when Finite won the Silverbulletday in January, though it was Valid Expectations who came to mind in the winner’s circle.
“Our first stakes win was here with Valid Expectations,” Asmussen fondly recalled. “He he was a very special horse to the barn and his win here in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve in 1995 put us over a million in earnings for the first time ever. Fair Grounds has been extremely important in the development of the barn.”
Joy’s Rocket, a daughter of Anthony’s Cross, has proven precocious and versatile from the start, winning on debut at Churchill Downs in June then traveling north to Woodbine to win the My Dear over the Tapeta in August. She next headed to Saratoga, where she was second in the Bolton Landing on turf later in August before running fourth while stretching out to a mile in Belmont Park’s Frizette (G1) in October. Asmussen cut Joy’s Rocket back in Keeneland’s November 6 Songbird and she responded with a game, gate-to-wire. Now 4-for-6 lifetime, she showed a new dimension stalking the early pace in the Letellier, which could bode well going longer in the future.
“To let that filly (Double Whopper) to go about her business, I think it speaks well’s for Joy’s Rocket going further,” Asmussen said. “She’s a very professional filly and Ricardo knows her and has a lot of confidence in her.”
Mariah’s Princess was game in defeat and looked like a potential upset candidate off the far turn as she gave the favorite a big scare. The daughter of Ghostzapper entered off a track and distance MSW win November 28 for trainer Phil Bauer, and while she couldn’t see it out late, jockey Miguel Mena was impressed.
“We learned she is a very nice horse and she got beat by a very nice filly,” Mena said. “It was good to get her some black-type and we’ll have to see what the future holds for this nice horse. She spotted some experience to the favorite but she can build off this.