Hard Not to Like returned to racing Saturday after an eight-month layoff, and with a savvy ride from jockey Joe Rocco Jr. won the $100,000 Marshua’s River Stakes (Grade 3) at Gulfstream Park.
In her first race with Michael Matz as trainer, Hard Not to Like rallied along the inside and beat Channel Lady by a half length in the 1 1/16-mile turf race for fillies and mares 4 years old and up. Leading Astray, the 2-1 favorite finished third in a strong eight-horse field
Hard Not to Like, at 7-1, won in 1:41.70 for her fourth victory in eight career starts.
The Marshua’s River was the first race for Hard Not to Like since last May 5 when she finished sixth in the Kentucky Oaks on dirt at Churchill Downs.
“We found a bone chip in one of her knees after the [Kentucky Oaks],” her owner, Garland Williamson, said in the winner’s circle Saturday.
Following surgery, Williamson in August sent Hard Not to Like from his farm in Ontario to Matz, who is based in South Florida during the winter and in Maryland during the remainder of the year.
Matz is best known for training Barbaro, the winner of the 1996 Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby. He also trained Union Rags, winner of last year’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the Belmont Stakes.
Willaimsom said he was satisfied with Ontario-based Gail Cox, who trained Hard Not to Llke in her previous seven races.
“Gail has a smaller staff and isn’t set up to travel the way Michael is,” Williamson said.
Said Matz: “She is a nice horse to be around and she has trained like a stakes winner.”
But he said he wasn’t sure what to expect from Hard Not to Like against the Marshua’s River field.
Hard Not to Like was one of six entrants that won at least one turf stakes last year.
None of the other five were returning from injuries, and they were all hard not to like for bettors.
Hard Not to Like was sent off at the sixth highest odds, and Rocco kept her in third place through most of the way.
Frontside, who finished fifth, led after a half mile in 48.91 seconds and three quarters in 1:12.92 —both moderate times.
Channel Lady took the lead coming out if the turn.
Hard Not to Like appeared blocked. But Rocco found an opening and took her to the rail.
Hard Not to Like caught Channel Lady about 100 yards from the wire and pulled ahead in the final strides.
“I didn’t know if Joe was going to get through there,” Matz said. “She showed she has that will to win.”
Matz said he will keep Hard Not to Like in turf stakes at Gulfstream and later this year at tracks in Northern states.
Hard Not to Like’s sire is Hard Spun, the second-place finisher in the 2007 Kentucky Derby,
Williamson owns Like a Gem, the mother of Hard Not to Like.
Gulfstream will have 11 races on Sunday with no stakes. First post time is 12:45 p.m.
Gulfstream’s next stakes will be the Fort Lauderdale (Grade 3) on Saturday. It is 1 1/16 miles on turf for males 4 years old and up.