The stable hand working at the barn entrance looked like he could help.
"Where's Spendarella? The filly from back East?"
He looked up from his chore.
"Not sure," he said. "Go ask Alice. I think she'll know."
Sure enough, there was Alice Clapham, Graham Motion's alter-ego, at the end of a shank attached to the 3-year-old filly Spendarella, who was stretching her legs around the Richard Mandella shedrow as traveling assistant Lisa Conway fluffed her stall and prepared her late afternoon meal.
The delegation from Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland is on the scene in San Diego County for the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks (G1T) on Saturday, Aug. 20, lending a spark of star power to a full field going nine furlongs around the seven-furlong oval. Spendarella may be only a grade 2 race winner so far, but it was her breakout performance in the Coronation Stakes (G1) during the Royal Ascot meeting in June that sets her apart from an opposition that includes no less than four entrants from the Irish wing of the Phil D'Amato stable.
Such a response should not be a surprise. There are precious few grade 1 opportunities for 3-year-old fillies on the grass. Five, in fact, during the North American season. The Del Mar Oaks has been among the elite events since 1994, when the American Graded Stakes Committee could no longer ignore its attraction to fillies like Flawlessly, Hidden Light, Hollywood Wildcat, Possibly Perfect, Fowda, and Race the Wild Wind.
Spendarella lost the Coronation Stakes (G1) by just under five lengths to Cartier champion 2-year-old filly Inspiral, a daughter of Frankel trained by John and Thady Gosden. Most of that margin was accumulated in the final furlong, during which Inspiral launched herself into another dimension. Spendarella had pressed the pace from the outset of the undulating, right-handed mile and hung tough to win a three-way photo for second money. Handicappers will note that Inspiral was second as the heavy choice in the subsequent Tattersalls Falmouth Stakes (G1) but then redeemed herself Aug. 14 by defeating older males in the Prix du Haras de Fresnay Le Buffard Jacques Le Marois (G1) at Deauville.
"The Ascot race was on a Friday, so she slept most of that Saturday," Clapham said. "But by Sunday she was up and bright, and we left for home a couple days later. She always eats well when she travels. Never bothered at all. In fact, she's the kind of horse who craves attention. If you walk around the corner she'll be at the front of her stall, waiting for you to return."
If Spendarella had a passport, it would seem she's on the run. She was bred by her owner, Gainesway Farm of Kentucky, but was foaled at Sequel Stallions in New York. Her dam, Spanish Bunny, was bred and raced in California for Barry Abrams and Madeline Auerbach (along with partners). Her sire, Karakontie , was bred in Japan, raced in France, and had his best day at Santa Anita Park in November of 2014 when he won the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T).
Standing quietly in the dusty yard outside the Mandella barn, with the giant painting of a whale on the building behind her, Spendarella let the late afternoon breeze from the Pacific fill her nostrils and tickle her forelock. Striking a relaxed pose, she is a classic bay with black points and white anklets behind, along with a more delicate version of her sire's trickling blaze.
"She's not overly big and tall, but she's strong, compact," Clapham said. "Not heavy, though. When you see her on the track she's very light on her feet. That way of going, plus a little bit of substance, makes her just the right size for a filly. They don't need to be big when they have a heart like hers."
Clapham comes from an honored equestrian family. Her older sister, Diana Clapham, won an Olympic silver medal in team eventing with her British comrades at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Two of the three events were held at Santa Anita Park.
It stands to reason, therefore, that sister Alice has a high bar when it comes to anything relating to horseflesh. During her time with Motion, the stable has won major prizes with the likes of Animal Kingdom, Shared Account, Better Talk Now, Irish War Cry, and Sharing, the daughter of Shared Account who won the 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T). Like Spendarella, Sharing finished second in the Coronation at Royal Ascot to the Irish whirlwind, Alpine Star.
"I guess we've been a bit unlucky to go there and twice be second in that race to world class fillies," Clapham said. "I hope it will be our turn someday."
With only four starts to her name, Spendarella seems to be all upside at this point and destined for the kind of career that makes even the most skeptical fans take notice. Clapham has been far from surprised.
"She came into Keeneland as an early 2-year-old," Clapham said. "There were just some growing pains, which is why we backed off and didn't run her as a 2-year-old. But I did say to Graham, 'We've got our next Sharing.'"
And what was the trainer's reaction?
"He said, 'Oh. Wow,'" Clapham replied.
After a lifetime in the saddle, Clapham, 52, stepped away from regular duties aboard the Motion horses in the mornings to concentrate on her role in managing the stable. When Spendarella began to train, Clapham experienced a twinge of longing for those days sailing along atop something special. Even from the ground, she knew the feeling.
"She's the definition of a lovely filly to ride," Clapham said. "They've got that class about them. And when she breezes, she's the kind you can just sit up there and look the part."
Spendarella's afternoon partners would agree. Jose Ortiz was aboard for her maiden win and a victory in the Herecomesthebride Stakes (G3T) at Gulfstream Park earlier this year, while Tyler Gaffalione took over for Spendarella's score in the Appalachian Stakes Presented by Japan Racing Association (G2T) at Keeneland. British ace William Buick rode her in the Coronation.
"William said you can do whatever you want with her," Clapham said. "He wasn't sure she even saw Inspiral out there in the middle of the course, but she was not going to let those other two get by her. I asked him, 'So you wouldn't mind riding her back again, would you?' He said, 'Oh no. Any time you want me back I'll ride her.'"
Clapham laughed at the memory. It's nice to be in demand. As it turned out, Buick is otherwise engaged at England's York Racecourse on Saturday with six mounts on the closing day of the Ebor Festival, which put Gaffalione back aboard.
"Tyler reminded us, 'She's mine,'" Clapham said with a laugh. "But Jose won't let us forget she's his, too."
If Spendarella runs to form in the Oaks, they'll need to make room in the bandwagon.