Princess Cruises; Time to Drop Anchor?

Now that Princess of Sylmar has elevated herself to new a plateau atop not only the 3-year-old filly division, but the rankings of best filly or mare in the nation, her connections, mainly majority owner Ed Stanco, have to carefully weigh their options as to what the next step will be.

It is a decision racing fans, reporters, Breeders’ Cup officials, and most everyone else anxiously await, as it will have a profound effect on the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. It is also a decision no owner can envision having to make one day after winning a maiden race at Penn National. But then, that is what makes the story of Princess of Sylmar and Stanco so compelling and magical.

But more on decisions later. For now, it is all about the present. And what a present it is for Stanco, his family, and their remarkable filly, having gone from the fields of Pennsylvania to Penn National to the inner track at Aqueduct to Kentucky Oaks glory, and then that extraordinary run of grade I victories at Saratoga, right up to Saturday’s conquest of the mighty Royal Delta.

It is only appropriate that at Saratoga this year you could find Stanco most days at the “Carousel” area behind the Saratoga grandstand, wagering and hanging out with friends. Stanco’s year has been a carousel of sorts – in constant motion, “riding” a magnificent steed, and collecting brass rings along the way.

Now that Princess of Sylmar has developed a habit of winning grade I stakes, Stanco is well aware that celebration comes in different forms -- whether it is hearing the now familiar chants of “Ed-die! Ed-die!” from his entourage of friends and family members as he enters the winner’s circle or observing a young girl standing behind a rail holding a modest hand-made poster that reads: “Pennsylvania’s Pride…Princess of Sylmar’s #1 Fan!”

Stanco has heard the chants before, and says he would prefer to hear “Prin-cess! Prin-cess!” But the adoration of a young fan he had never met before struck a special cord following Saturday’s Beldame Stakes and he agreed to meet the girl, named Averie Levanti, and her father, who had driven his daughter from Reading, Pa. just to see Princess of Sylmar. The meeting, however, did not come off as planned, and as Belmont was emptying out, Averie was running around frantically looking for Stanco. They finally were able to hook up and Stanco brought her and her father back to the barn to meet Princess of Sylmar.

“She said it was the best day of her life,” Stanco said. “It made it all worthwhile. It was just priceless.”

Averie expressed her gratitude to Stanco. "Meeting Princess was amazing," she wrote to him. "It literally felt unreal and I just wanted to thank you so much for everything. The enthusiasm that comes with each win is unseen in racing and it brings a smile to my face every time. Thanks again for giving me this amazing opportunity."

Meanwhile, watching on TV were Ronnie and Betsy Houghton, who foaled and raised Princess of Sylmar.

“Oh my gosh, we were thrilled to death,” Betsy said. “I’m at the Timonium sale right now and you can’t believe how many people are talking about her. She’s just an incredible filly. She does everything so easily. I spoke to Ed yesterday and he said the day was just a blur to him.”

With Princess of Sylmar’s victories in the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Alabama Stakes a champion was born. With her Beldame victory against the 1-5 Royal Delta a hero was born.

“This is just unbelievable,” Stanco said following the race as he listened to the cheers from the crowd for his filly. “This is for the people. Look at how many fans came out here to watch the performances of these two fillies.”

As soon as everything sinks in and Stanco and trainer Todd Pletcher have a chance to assess how the filly came out of the race, Stanco will have to make a decision whether to go to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. He has stated all along that he wants to race Princess of Sylmar again next year and does not want to subject her to a long hard trip at the end of a campaign that actually began last October and carried through the winter meet at Aqueduct. She did get a much-needed 2 1/2-month vacation after the Kentucky Oaks, but has come back with three monster performances.

“I know everyone wants to see her run, but it’s about the filly,” Stanco said. “I really don’t want to overextend her and possibly burn her out. That’s so critical to me. We’ve been with her since the day she was born and she’s very special. She’s a gift, a blessing, and we treat her that way. Hopefully, she has a lot of racing in her next year. We’re here to race. We don’t get into any of this return on investment. It’s really up to Todd, but we don’t want the travel to take anything out of her. You can see how special she is. I mean she is truly truly special. She does this without effort.

“This is unchartered territory for us. Remember, we use to do these strategy sessions, except we used to ask, ‘Do we go in a $7,500 claimer or a $5,000 claimer?’”

Statistics may bear out Stanco’s initial feelings. The last 3-year-old filly to win the Beldame was Imperial Gesture 11 years ago.

Princess of Sylmar’s time of 1:47 4/5 was the fastest Beldame since the 5-year-old Riboletta 13 years ago, and Riboletta went on to finish seventh in the Distaff as the 2-5 favorite.

The last 3-year-old filly to win the Beldame in faster time was Yanks Music 17 years ago and she never ran again. Prior to Yanks Music, the Beldame was won by 3-year-olds four years in a row and all would contest the Distaff – Serena’s Song, who would finish fifth, beaten 18 3/4 lengths; Heavenly Prize, who was upset by a 47-1 shot; Dispute, who would finish fourth; and Saratoga Dew, who would finish 12th, beaten 13 1/2 lengths, as the 2-1 favorite.

It can be said that Royal Delta won the Distaff as a 3-year-old coming off the Beldame, but she was beaten 8 1/4 lengths by Havre de Grace in 1:49 1/5, and Havre de Grace skipped the Distaff to run in the Classic.

In short, the Beldame, which used to be the championship race, along with possibly the Spinster, is a tough race, going 1 1/8 miles around only one turn, and even more tough on 3-year-olds facing older horses, and still more tough when the older horse you’re beating is a two-time Eclipse Award winner and two-time Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner.

It is to Stanco’s credit that he ran Princess of Sylmar against Royal Delta in the Beldame instead of going for the $1 million purse of the grade I Cotillion Stakes against 3-year-olds, where she would have received a hometown hero’s welcome.

“This is where she should be,” Stanco said in the paddock early on Saturday. “My main thing is, I want her back next year. As I’ve said, we’re racing for history today, not the money. This is a new stratosphere for us.”

And history is what he made, as Princess of Sylmar became the first filly ever to win the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, and Beldame in the same year.

Stanco remembers the moment when Princess of Sylmar first launched herself into that stratosphere, back during the cold winter days at Aqueduct while Todd Pletcher’s main force was basking in the Florida sun at Palm Meadows.

“It was in December of last year at Aqueduct (in an allowance/optional claimer) when she was behind Kimono (the 6-5 favorite trained by Pletcher) and she pulled out and (Rajiv Maragh) touched her once and she exploded (winning by 5 1/4 lengths),” Stanco recalled. “That was the moment that really told us she could be something special. It was after that we got a significant offer to sell her. It was very good deal and I went through the economics, but my children begged me not to consider it. They said, ‘Dad, you’re not a breeder, you’re a racer.’”

And race he did, right into the record books. With each victory, the Princess of Sylmar bandwagon kept picking up passengers, and she’s taken them on quite a magical ride. To demonstrate how she's come, her win payoff of $79.60 in the Kentucky Oaks is the highest win payoff in a grade I stakes this year.

Stanco recalled following the offer, “Todd said, ‘Ed, the numbers are right, but, remember, if you sell her and she turns out to be good, and I think she could be good barring any injury, will you be able to live with that the rest of your life?’ I said, ‘We’re not selling her.’ That’s when the whole plan was put together to keep her in New York. She enjoys the winter and the cold weather, and I love Aqueduct, so that was the plan.”

If there is one thing that is endearing about Princess of Sylmar it is the affection people have for her, especially those who have been close to her.

“She’s always had such a great temperament,” Betsy Houghton said. “Nothing at all bothered her and she was just a happy filly all the time. Every time we worked her she would go better than the horse she was working with. We would notice, when they came around the turn, the boy on her workmate would be riding his horse and the boy on Princess of Sylmar would be sitting still in order for them to stay together, because Ronnie doesn’t like the babies beating each other.”

Chris Marsh has been the Houghton’s farrier for 34 years and represented the farm at Belmont Saturday.

“She was a piece of cake to work with; real classy and calm,” he said. “She acted like an older horse even when she was 2-year-old.”

Equine therapist Carol Seaver knows Princess of Sylmar as well as anyone, working on her once or twice a week and every day leading up to a big race. Seaver loves watching her antics of throwing her alfalfa out of the feed bin, flinging it several feet away.

“She’ll toss her food out and then just stand there and wait for people to pick it up,” Seaver said. “Everybody knows to accept it and they’ll just pick it up as they walk by. She waits and watches and after they put it back she throws it out again. She’s very affectionate and so great to work with. You know how a mare will embrace their foal by turning their neck around and pulling them close? She’ll do that when I’m working on her. She’s just fun to be around, because she’s so sweet and intelligent.”

After the Beldame, the dirt smudges on Stanco’s shirt collar and jacket lapel were quite noticeable, the result of the close contact he had with his filly and the affection he had lavished on her in the winner’s circle.

“She got me,” he said. “But that’s all right, I’ll gladly wear that.” 

Todd Pletcher will be a lot more relaxed and happy in about 8 minutes

The outpouring of emotion following the Beldame

Just in case Ed Stanco wants to know how his shirt collar and jacket got smudged with dirt

The rejoicing continues in the winner's circle

Ed Stanco arranges with "Princess's #1 fan" Averie Elizabeth to meet after the races

Next four show off her personality. Here, Joan feeds her a carrot

Now what?

Princess reaches way down to the bottom of her feed tub

Then flings out her alfalfa as far as she can

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