Dickinson, Celestine square off in G1 Longines Just a Game
by NYRA Press Office
Grade 1 winners Dickinson and Celestine, two of the top older turf mares in training and each riding a three-race win streak, are set to meet for the first time in Saturday’s Grade 1, $700,000 Longines Just a Game at Belmont Park.
The 24th running of the Just a Game at one mile on the Widener turf course for fillies and mares four and up is one of 10 stakes, nine graded, on a 13-race program highlighted by the 149th renewal of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
As a daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, a multiple Grade 1 winner on dirt and runner-up in the 2002 Belmont and 2002-03 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and out of the 2008 Grade 1 Ashland-winning mare Little Belle, Godolphin Stable homebred Dickinson made her first eight career starts on dirt, winning twice.
The bay mare has won five of her six starts since being moved to the turf last fall by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, the only exception coming in the Grade 3 Marshua’s River January 14 at Gulfstream Park to open her 5-year-old campaign. She ran fourth, beaten 1 ¼ lengths after having to steady in traffic on the far turn.
Dickinson returned to Gulfstream to win the Grade 3 Suwannee River February 11 and captured the Grade 2 Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs before leaving Florida in mid-April.
“We kept thinking she was dirt because Little Belle was dirt,” McLaughlin said. “She’s gotten really good since we switched her to the turf. She could easily be six-for-six. She worked great the other day and she’s ready to go. She’s a nice filly.”
Dickinson became a Grade 1 winner with a gutsy come-from-behind head victory over multiple graded stakes winner Lady Eli in the 1 1/16-mile Jenny Wiley April 15, one of four stakes victories on the Keeneland card for McLaughlin.
“It was great win, a great day for Godolphin and Team McLaughlin. To win a Grade 1 with a filly anytime is great but it was nice because she’s such a well-bred filly for Godolphin out of a Grade 1 winner,” he said. “It’s a tough field again, anytime you have a Grade 1. We’re excited.”
Paco Lopez, aboard for each of her last three wins, will ride Dickinson from post 1 at 121 pounds.
Moyglare Stud Farm’s Celestine nearly set a Widener turf course record winning last year’s Just a Game in 1:31.64, one-hundredth of a second off the mark set by Elusive Quality in 1998, for her previous connections.
The 5-year-old daughter of Scat Daddy sold for $2.55 million at Keeneland’s November 2016 breeding stock sale and this year joined the barn of trainer Christophe Clement, winning the Sand Springs and Grade 2 Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park over the winter.
“She’s been very well going into the Just a Game, which is great. We’ll see what happens,” Clement said. “She’s two-for-two [for us] and she’s top class. It’s great because Moyglare bought her a broodmare prospect, and they did that with Discreet Marq a few years ago.
“They like those kinds of American families with speed and take those back to Europe to breed to Irish sires,” he added. “It’s a long-term thing, which is great for them because they get to bring some new blood into their operation and it’s great for us because we get to train some of these nice fillies as well.”
Jose Ortiz is named to ride Celestine, the 123-pound highweight, from post 5.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who raced Celestine last year, will be represented in the Just a Game by another Grade 1 winner in Lakin Armstrong’s Harmonize. The 4-year-old filly, also by Scat Daddy, is winless in four starts – including seconds in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup and Grade 2 Mrs. Revere last fall – since her breakthrough victory in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks last August.
Most recently, Harmonize was last of seven in the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 6. Hall of Famer John Velazquez will ride from post 4 at 121 pounds.
Trainer Chad Brown has a pair of Just a Game entrants in Juddmonte Farms’ Antonoe and Sheep Pond Partners, Newport Stables and Bradley Thoroughbreds’ Roca Rojo. A Group 3 winner in France last year, 4-year-old Antonoe made her North American debut with a 2 ¼-length allowance victory going 1 1/16 miles April 14 at Keeneland.
“We ran her at Keeneland and have waited to run her back to get her freshened up a bit,” Brown said. “Running in an allowance race into a Grade 1 is not my normal move [but] this filly seems like she has exceptional talent. She’s already a group winner in Europe, and her number in that race [at Keeneland] was good and she projects to move forward here. We’re going to give it a shot.”
Roca Rojo is a multiple graded stakes winner having taken the Grade 3 Athenia over Belmont’s inner turf course last fall and the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile May 6 at Churchill Downs in her 5-year-old debut, both over less-than-firm turf. In between, her wide rally down the stretch came up a nose short of Miss Temple City in the Grade 1 Matriarch Dec. 4 at Del Mar.
“She ran a huge race [at Churchill]. She’s not limited to soft ground, by any means,” Brown said. “She ran a terrific race in the Matriarch on firm last year, barely beaten by Miss Temple City, but she really excels on soft. It didn’t surprise me that she got such a great number at Churchill on soft ground.”
Hall of Fame-elect jockey Javier Castellano has the mount on Antonoe from outside post 7 while Florent Geroux is named on Roca Rojo from post 2.
Completing the Just a Game field are Deron Pearson’s multiple graded stakes winner Prize Exhibit, most recently fifth in the Distaff Turf Mile; and Sheep Pond Partners’ Sassy Little Lila, second in the Winter Memories and Grade 1 American Oaks last year and cross-entered in Friday’s Grade 2, $500,000 New York at 1 ¼ miles over Belmont’s inner turf.