The Father's Day card at Belmont Park was highlighted by the $250,000 Poker Stakes (G3T) open to 4-year-olds and up, but it was a mare in foal who defeated males and stole the show at odds of 17-1.
Team Valor International's Oleksandra rallied from last of nine to duel with three-time grade 1 winner and 3-5 favorite Raging Bull in deep stretch. The 7-year-old Animal Kingdom mare, in foal to Into Mischief , prevailed by a head to win the one-mile feature on the Widener turf course.
The Poker was Oleksandra's first win since last year's Jaipur Stakes (G1T), run on the same date in 2020 over six furlongs on Belmont's inner turf. Trainer Neil Drysdale said he decided to skip this year's Jaipur on June 5 because of soft turf and instead stretched Oleksandra out to one mile in her final race before retirement.
"Things haven't gone exactly smooth this year for her," said Drysdale, referring to her previous start when fifth as the 2-1 favorite in the Unbridled Sidney Stakes April 29 over a Churchill Downs turf course labeled good. "We ran in Kentucky and realized she doesn't like the soft going. So, then we decided not to run here (in the Jaipur) because it was raining a lot here, too, at the time.
"Since she's more relaxed this year, we decided to try her at a mile hoping she could get the distance, and she did. She's pregnant, so this was her swan song. She'll go out on a high note."
In her career finale, Oleksandra had more in mind than a broodmare career.
She broke in from post 2 under Joel Rosario, just to the outside of Raging Bull and Irad Ortiz Jr. at the rail, and brushed the near side stall before brushing the hindquarters of Raging Bull. Rosario then settled her inside at the back of the field. Raging Bull, who took the Maker's Mark Mile Stakes (G1T) April 9 at Keeneland, raced in fifth. Get Smokin, winner of the Seek Again Stakes May 22 at Belmont, set the pace with quarter-mile fractions of :22.52 and :44.60 through the first half.
Rosario urged Oleksandra up in the far turn and tipped her out as the field straightened for home. The veteran Australian-bred showed a strong turn of foot in overtaking eight rivals from the outside, responding to Rosario's encouragement with a furious push for home. Oleksandra needed every bit of that effort, as Raging Bull surged up the rail and gained ground in the final jumps.
Oleksandra staved off the late bid and hit the wire in a stellar final time of 1:32.11 on firm turf. She returned $36.80 on a $2 win ticket.
"She ran a really tremendous race," Rosario said. "She was really relaxed. The pace was fast and she was there for me. It was very impressive. We started picking up a little bit after three furlongs, and she got her momentum with that stride that she has. At one point, I just decided to try going out a little bit. I didn't want to get stuck."
Rosario won the Poker for the second time in the last three editions, also piloting Gucci Factor to victory in 2019.
"I was a little concerned about how she would break and put me in the spot and if she could relax after going shorter," Rosario said. "It was a nice training job by Neil. He's one of the best."
By beating Raging Bull, Oleksandra thwarted trainer Chad Brown's quest for his 100th career graded stakes win at Belmont. Raging Bull was a strong runner-up, finishing three lengths ahead of stablemate Front Run the Fed.
"No excuses," said Raging Bull's jockey Ortiz.
Oleksandra increased her earnings to $705,748 from an 8-4-3 record in 20 starts. She returned to the track for Team Valor this year after passing through the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale ring as a $1.45 million RNA when consigned by Bluewater Sales.
She was bred in Australia by Team Valor and produced from the Caesour mare Alexandra Rose, a group 2 winner in her native country of South Africa and victorious in the Monrovia Handicap (G3T) at Santa Anita Park. Alexandra Rose is the dam of five winners from seven starters. Her last reported foal, a filly by Mendelssohn , was foaled in Australia in August 2020.
Oleksandra's full brother Prince Alexander, racing as a 2-year-old in Australia, broke his maiden May 2 in his third start for Team Valor.