Little Belle wins Ashland Stakes

Lexington, Ky. (April 5, 2008)—Little Belle won the $500,000 Ashland Stakes Saturday at Keeneland, giving jockey Rajiv Maragh his first Grade 1 win and earning a probable trip to the Kentucky Oaks (G1) next month at Churchill Downs.

The 3-year-old daughter of A.P. Indy set the early pace, briefly relinquished the lead to Bsharpsonata at the top of the stretch and then rallied along the inside for her third consecutive win.

“I was pretty confident when she (Bsharpsonata) was beside me because I knew my horse hadn’t really kicked in yet and give me the burst that she was going to give me,” said Maragh, a native of Jamaica who was riding at Keeneland for the first time.

A neck separated Little Belle and Bsharpsonata at the finish of the 1 1/16-mile race timed in 1:43.69 on the Polytrack surface. It was 2 ½ lengths back to third-place Proud Spell, winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) in her last start.

Country Star raced wide and finished fifth as the even-money favorite. Making her first start of the year, she scored consecutive Grade 1 victories in the Darley Alcbiades and Hollywood Starlet Stakes as a two-year-old in 2007.

Little Belle earned a start in the Ashland with a pair of wins, including the Busher Stakes, at Aqueduct in February. Kiaran McLaughlin trains the filly for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum’s Darley Stable.

“She’s been improving dramatically through each start this year,” said Neal McLaughlin, the assistant to his brother Kiaran. “We just felt like she deserved a chance to really step up and see how good she could be. This was the spot we picked.

“It was a tough one, but we wanted to know if we had a Kentucky Oaks filly on our hands or not.”

Little Belle improved her career record to three wins in six starts and increased her earnings to $406,060 with the winner’s purse of $310,000.

“I have no real excuses,” said jockey Robby Albarado of Country Star’s disappointing performance. “I had a great spot. I was right where I wanted to be, right next to Proud Spell. There’s just no rhyme or reason for it. She felt great.”