(La Coronel winning the Appalachian Stakes earlier this year)

La Coronel really loves Keeneland Race Course. Maybe not as much as the frat boys like coming out in their khakis, and love watching all the sorority ladies in their Sunday best on Saturday afternoon. Maybe not as much as the sun loves Central Kentucky and kisses the green, green grass of home. Maybe not as much as all of Lexington loves the University of Kentucky basketball team.

But she does love her some Keeneland. At least, she loves its’ grass course.

On Saturday, La Coronel — the 3-year-old filly by Colonel John — made her third career start on the lovely turf course that resides at Keeneland.  And, for the third time in a row, La Coronel made her way around the course in front and headed to that winner’s circle in the infield.

(John and Debby Oxley, the owners of La Coronel)

This time, La Coronel won her first Grade 1 Stakes race, capturing the $500k,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup for her owner John Oxley; trainer Mark Casse; and her rider Jose Lezcano, Jr.  They led nearly wire-to-wire to pick up her first victory since capturing the Grade 3 Edgewood Stakes at Churchill Downs this spring.  That victory came on the heels of her 31/4-length victory over a touted field in the G3 Appalachian Stakes right here in Lexington.

As a 2-year-old last fall, La Coronel found out how much she liked the Keeneland grass course for the first time when she ran off to a 41/2-length victory in the G3 Jessamine Stakes here.

“I wanted to go to the lead,” said winning rider Jose Lezcano. “She was very comfortable there. Last time I rode her (in the Sands Point-G2 on Sept. 16 at Belmont Park), she jumped a little bit early into the bit, but after that she relaxed on the backside. Today she broke and was very comfortable (in the lead) so I let her be. She was comfortable the whole way around.”

Daddy’s Lil Darling, trained by local resident Ken McPeek, tried the full length of the stretch to make it a race, but really never was a serious threat, having to settle for second. Madam Dancealot, an Irish-bred who entered the race with four fast-closing finishes in the money, rallied to grab third place over a tiring Uni.

It didn’t take La Coronel long to stake her claim to this year’s QE II Challenge Cup.  Right from the get go, she set dead aim for the lead. And, just a few strides into the race, the filly had drug rider Jose Lezcano right to the front. And, they set sail for the finish line some 11/8-miles away.

Like in the G2 Sands Point at Belmont Park on Sept. 16, Lezcano just put his boots in the stirrups and his hands on the reigns and guided. Not much else to do, as they whipped along in practical fractions.

But unlike the G2 Sands Point, when Uni made a furious rally to catch her near the wire, there was no catching La Coronel.  Not on this day.  Not on this track.  Not on her home track.

(Trainer Mark Casse)

“It was a fantastic race,” said Assistant Trainer David Carroll. “Jose (Lezcano) rode her beautifully. All the credit goes to (Casse’s son and assistant Norman). She came down to me (from Casse at Churchill Downs) during the week. We schooled her (in the Keeneland Paddock). She settled in well.

“We’re just so happy for the Oxleys (winning owner John C. Oxley and his wife, Debby, whose Heavenly Love won the Darley Alcibiades-G1 for Casse on Oct. 6) and for (La Coronel) to get a Grade 1 win and redeem herself. Some people might have doubted her, but she showed her true colors today. We couldn’t be any happier.”

Jockey Robby Albarado was left to second-guessing after his second place finish with Daddy’s Lil Darling.

“The fractions were moderately slow for these kind of horses,” he said. “The only speed horse got out front and was just cantering on the lead and I was tucked inside. In hindsight, maybe we should have been closer to put some pressure on the horse in front. My horse was close and she tried the whole way. She tried hard.”

McPeek was still happy with his filly’s effort, though.

“Robby positioned her perfectly. It wasn’t like he was way back on a slow pace; he was up close. He rode her well and she just couldn’t get past the winner. I am pleased with the way she ran.”

Farther back in third was jockey Jamie Theriot, who was riding Madame Dancealot.

“The race was fine. I had a great trip,” said Theriot, who used to ride in Central Kentucky before relocating to Southern California to hang his tack. ” I was in stalking position, and when I called on her at the quarter pole, she was full of run for me. But there really wasn’t too much pace for me and pace makes the race. (For) the two that were up close (La Coronel and Daddys Lil Darling) that was how (the race finished). I was really the only one running at the end.”

There were very little excuses for New Money Honey, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf a year ago. It was her second disappointing run over the Keeneland course.

“(She was) moving beautiful, but when I asked her today I don’t know what happened,” said HOF rider JJ Castellano. “Maybe she didn’t like the course here. I don’t know. I can’t find any excuse. Perfect trip, and I didn’t have it.”

The chart of the race:

<QE II Presented by Lane's End (G1) Chart.pdf>