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It wasn't the most commanding performance, but what else would you expect on a whimsical spring afternoon at New York's Aqueduct race course, a day that was kissed at one time or another by rain, snow and sunshine? Last Saturday the brilliant 3-year-old filly Meadow Star pushed her record to 9 for 9 with a 1�-length victory in the $112,600 Comely Stakes, a mile race that she could have won by a lot more. But when it was over, her trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said he was satisfied with her performance. "My feeling now," he said, "is that we definitely will go back to the Wood."
He was talking about the April 20 Wood Memorial, long New York's most important Kentucky Derby prep, which will be run over the same track. The Wood will be Meadow Star's first crack at colts and her first effort at 1? miles, only a furlong shorter than the Derby distance. If she acquits herself well, she'll almost surely be shipped to Louisville's Churchill Downs to test Florida Derby winner Fly So Free and the nation's other leading 3-year-old colts in the 117th Kentucky Derby on May 4.
The filly's owner, Carl Icahn, chairman of the board of TWA, said after the Comely that Meadow Star didn't necessarily have to win the Wood to earn her trip to the Derby. "If she does well, we'll put her in there," Icahn said. But Jolley was more cautious, maintaining the wait-and-see posture he had assumed after Meadow Star won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last Oct. 27 at Belmont Park.
The Comely was Meadow Star's second victory of the year, following a 4�-length laugher in the Queen of the Stage Stakes at Aqueduct on March 16, but it wasn't accomplished in the impressive fashion with which she had won her first eight races—by an average of slightly more than five lengths.
Jockey Chris Antley, who replaced Jose Santos after the latter committed to ride Fly So Free in the Kentucky Derby, took Meadow Star just back of the slow early pace set by Julie Krone aboard Do It With Style. But Antley was so confident, he almost played it too cool. At the top of the stretch, when he finally asked Meadow Star to run, the filly took her time getting into gear, allowing Do It With Style to retain the lead for a few more giddy moments in which, said Krone afterward, "I thought we had a chance." But when Meadow Star changed leads (shifting her lead foreleg from left to right) and began to feel the sting of Antley's whip (he hit her five righthanded licks), she blew past Do It With Style and drew off to win, covering the mile in a slow 1:38.
As Antley guided the filly into the walking ring, an anxious Icahn greeted him: "Hey, Chris, were you holding her back there?" After listening to Antley's explanation ("I could have opened up five lengths in the turn if I'd wanted to," the jockey said), Icahn seemed mollified. "He wasn't pushing her," said Icahn.
As for Antley, his status as a Kentucky Derby rider is clouded by a five-day suspension in California—the result of interfering with the progress of another horse during the Santa Anita Handicap on March 9. Although Antley has appealed the suspension, he must await the California racing board's decision and hope he can serve his suspension at his convenience. That would leave him free to ride Meadow Star in the Wood and, with luck, the Derby, where he has finished 10th and ninth in his only two starts.
After the Comely, Jolley didn't waste time second-guessing Antley's ride, preferring to concentrate on the fact that his filly closed strongly, covering the last quarter of a mile in a solid 24 seconds despite carrying the high weight of 121 pounds, three to nine more than her four opponents. And Meadow Star seemed to have no trouble handling an off track that was upgraded from muddy to good just before the Comely.
"The thing I wanted was for her to finish strong," said Jolley. "She did that. This race was very good for her because she had to fight. Horses tend to lull us into complacency if they win off easily. We knew she had the ability, so it was good to see her fight and win."
The son of the late Moody Jolley, who trained for Claiborne Farm in the 1950s, Jolley is a traditionalist who understands what a daunting task it can be to run a filly against colts. The males are physically stronger, especially at such a relatively early stage in their careers, and Meadow Star, who was born on May 19, 1988, won't even be three on Derby Day.