Star Fortress Leads Competitive Field in Pegasus Filly & Mare Turf (G2)

January 22nd, 2024

Defending champ Queen Goddess Entered

Pletcher, Joseph & Brown Enter Two Each

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – In her stateside debut for trainer Cherie DeVaux, Star Fortress didn’t just win, she turned in an eye-opening performance.

That 10-length triumph in the Cardinal (G3) on Nov. 23 at Churchill Downs showed that the Irish-bred mare was more than capable in North American stakes company and earned her an invitation to the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf (G2) Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The 5-year-old drew Post 4 and is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in the third running of the 1 1/16 miles stake, where she will face a full field of 11 others on the Pegasus World Cup (G1) program.

Last year’s winner, Queen Goddess, returns and drew Post 8, and is part of a strong field of graded-stakes runners, which includes Merriebelle Stable’s Didia and Spendthrift Farm’s Ruby Nell.

Trainer Chad Brown entered a pair, Fluffy Socks and Chili Flag. Head of Plains Partners’ Fluffy Socks is a 6-year-old, millionaire, the top earner in the field, whose five wins have come at five different tracks. She drew Post 7 and is the 9-2 second choice on the morning line. Chili Flag, a French-bred 5-year-old, has been no worse than third in six starts since being imported after the 2022 season. She will start from Post 2 and is 20-1.

 The top three finishers in the local prep, the very contentious Dec. 30 Suwanee River (G3): Full Count Felicia, Accomplished Girl and Sister Lou Ann all advanced to the Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

Star Fortress, co-owned by John Gunther and Eurowest Bloodstock Services, one of the breeders, started her career in Europe with Ralph Beckett. She won one of seven starts, and placed in a Group 3, before she was sent to DeVaux’s barn last summer. DeVaux prepped her for the 1 1/8 miles Cardinal, which was run over good ground at Churchill. After sitting at the back of the field of six through the first six furlongs, she unleashed a five-wide move under Luis Saez and blew past the others.

“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” DeVaux said. “Her form was OK from Europe. We were cutting her back in distance.  She had been training really well, but we only had the opportunity to train on dirt, and she had been training extremely well. I was expecting her to have a good showing of herself, but that performance definitely superseded anything you could have hoped for.”

Tanya Gunther purchased Star Fortress for $176,234 as a weanling and the Sea of Stars filly did not make her first start until the summer of her 3-year-old season of 2022. In Europe, she was often prominent early in the races, all of which were at least 1¼ miles. The decision was made to give her a try in North America.   

“The Gunthers felt maybe the turf over here might be more to her liking, and just the flow of the races, which it was,” DeVaux said. “She’s a well-bred filly. One of her half-siblings is running over there in graded-stakes company. We were just trying to see what she would do over here and just give her a different environment.”

In the Cardinal, Star Fortress found success with a different running style in a race with a livelier early pace. She worked five furlongs in 59.60 on the turf at the Palm Meadows Training Center Thursday, which DeVaux called an excellent breeze.

“She came out of that race fine,” DeVaux said. “She had a little bit of a minor setback after her first work, but as far as fitness goes, she’s fit, she’s happy and training right along.”

DeVaux said Star Fortress seemed to enjoy the give in the ground in the Cardinal but is ready to test her on what is likely to be firmer going in the Filly and Mare Turf.

The race dynamic is the key, DeVaux said: “As long as the pace is there, which she should get over here, she should be a formidable foe.”

Stalking the pace early, Queen Goddess took the 2023 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf by 1½ lengths over Shantisara at 4-1. Queen Goddess won the American Oaks (G1) in December 2021 and delivered three-straight strong races in California – winning two of them – for trainer Michael McCarthy before the Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf. She is winless in four starts since, but was the closely beaten favorite in the Gamely (G1) in May and in her comeback race, the Goldikova (G2) on Nov. 5. She had a troubled trip in the Matriarch (G1) on Dec. 3 at Del Mar and was ninth.

Cairo Consort, who drew the rail for the Filly and Mare Turf and is 15-1, finished fourth, beaten a length as the 2-1 favorite in her return to the races in the Tropical Park Oaks on Dec. 23. It was her first start since early May. She is a stakes-proven 4-year-old with four black-type finishes in graded races. Repole Stable and Town and Country Racing paid $875,000 for her after she finished third in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly Turf (G1) at Keeneland. In the care of Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, she promptly picked up a pair of wins at Gulfstream Park to start 2023, was third by a head in the Herecomesthebride (G3) and second by a neck in the Appalacian (G2).

“It was a good effort in the Oaks,” Pletcher said. “She just got a little too far back, closed well, but left her a little too much to do. She got a little bit of a break after Churchill and part of the reason for that was we felt like she does handle Gulfstream really well. She had quite a bit of success as a 3-year-old there so we wanted to freshen her up with the idea that we would hopefully get a race in the Tropical Oaks and that would set her up for the Pegasus.”

Pletcher also will saddle Repole Stable’s Surprisingly, who was purchased for $1 million at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale. Bred and raced by Phipps Stable, the 5-year-old daughter of Mastery, finished in the top three in five consecutive graded stakes in 2023, topped by a win in the Endeavour (G3). Surprisingly drew the opposite end of the field from Cairo Consort and is 20-1.

Didia was imported from her native Argentina following a notable 2021 campaign, that was highlighted by a pair of Group 1 wins over males at 1 ¼ miles. She has been very tough in the U.S. with trainer Ignacio Correas, winning five of seven starts, including the Rodeo Drive (G2). Away from the races since finishing 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf (G1), she drew Post 9 and is 6-1 on the morning line.

Gulfstream Park’s leading trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. will send out Accomplished Girl and Sister Lou Ann, the team that put Full Count Felicia to the test in the Suwanee River. Gentry Farm’s Accomplished Girl won the Presque Island Downs Masters (G2) on Sept. 18 and showed she was capable at two turns in the one-mile Suwanee. Accomplished Girl drew Post 3 and is 20-1. Ken Ramsey’s homebred Sister Lou Ann has finished in the money in four or her five starts since blinkers were removed last summer. She drew Post 10 and is 20-1.

Full Count Felicia has flourished since she was moved to trainer Brittany Russell’s barn last summer, winning five of seven starts. Russell has stretched out the Gold Square LLC 5-year-old mare and she continued her climb up the competitive ladder with her first graded stakes victory in the Suwanee River. Full Count Felicia will leave from Post 5 with new rider Javier Castellano up and is 10-1 on the morning line.

Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella has developed consistent Ruby Nell into a turf stakes runner, who added the Autumn Miss (G3) to her resume on Nov. 5. She has a record of 5-2-1 in 10 starts for Spendthrift Farm, which paid $1.2 million for the now 4-year-old daughter of Bolt d’Oro. Ruby Nell drew Post 6 and is 8-1.

In her most recent start, Mission of Joy, finished third by a length in the Queen Elizabeth II to Mawj, who went on finish second by a nose against males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. (G1). The Kitten’s Joy 4-year-old filly trained by Graham Motion, won the Florida Oaks (G3) and the Regret (G3) last year. She drew Post 11 and is 10-1 on the morning line.

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