Having risen to the top of the older female division this season, Close Hatches will attempt to maintain her position on Friday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Personal Ensign at Saratoga over 1 1/8 miles.
In the shadow of Beholder and Princess of Sylmar in 2013, Close Hatches has started her four-year-old campaign with three straight wins, including a narrow score in the $1 million Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park on June 7. In that 1 1/16-mile heat, which pitted last year's leading three-year-old fillies in their first rematch since the Breeders' Cup Distaff, Close Hatches prevailed by a neck over Princess of Sylmar, with Beholder only a length behind in fourth.
It's been 2 1/2 months since the Ogden Phipps, a victory that followed wire-to-wire scores in the Apple Blossom Handicap and Azeri, both at Oaklawn Park. However, trainer Bill Mott is not concerned about the layoff.
"She's always run pretty good off the bench," Mott said. "Her works have been good, and I think we've got enough in her. She's always run very well when she's had time between races."
Princess of Sylmar, a clear leader in the three-year-old championship race before her loss to Beholder in the Breeders' Cup last November, captured a minor stakes at Aqueduct prior to her loss to the Ogden Phipps. Last time, she was a 1-5 favorite in the 1 1/4-mile Delaware Handicap, but was beaten nearly three lengths by a loose-on-the-lead Belle Gallantey.
"She just missed in the Phipps," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Princess of Sylmar. "She ran a big race (in the Phipps) and didn't get a proper set-up in the Delaware Handicap and maybe didn't run her 'A' race, but she has been training exceptionally well and we believe she is sitting on a good effort."
Princess of Sylmar will wear blinkers for the first time on Friday.
Belle Gallantey took advantage of a paceless affair at Delaware Park, but probably yields early control of the Personal Ensign to Antipathy, who was a surprise third in the Ogden Phipps, a neck behind Close Hatches at 30-1. The late-blooming A.P. Indy filly followed up that stakes debut with a two-length score in the Shuvee Handicap, contested over a muddy Saratoga strip on July 27.
"We need some racing luck and for her to run her 'A' race (to win the Personal Ensign)," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "It's a tough group, but we're happy to be in there, and we'll see how it goes. Hopefully, we'll have a good day. I think she (belongs among the best in the division). She missed by only a half-length in the Phipps and came back and won."
Stanwyck was runner-up in the Shuvee and also placed in the Apple Blossom, Santa Margarita and Santa Maria earlier this year. The well-built daughter of Empire Maker earned her signature win last October in the Turnback the Alarm Handicap at Belmont, but has seen her bids flatten out in the final furlong of recent starts.
Fiftyshadesofhay, whose graded stakes scores include the May 11 Ruffian and 2013 editions of the Black-Eyed Susan and Iowa Oaks, returns to dirt following a fourth-place finish in the Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar.
The stellar Personal Ensign field is rounded out by the speedy, Todd Pletcher-trained Majestic River, who exits a 2 1/2-length score in sub-standard renewal of the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park.
The supporting feature is the $100,000 Tale of the Cat, a six-furlong dash for older horses that have not won a graded stakes in 2014. Grade 2 victors Bahamian Squall and Bern Identity are joined by stakes winners Traffic Light, Sensational Slam, and Royal Currier, as well as General George Handicap runner-up Tenango.