HOT SPRINGS, AR (Thursday, March 30, 2023) – Oaklawn created the Matron Stakes to enhance its program for older female sprinters and with the hope of earning graded status quickly.

So far, so good.

Friday’s inaugural $250,000 Matron has lured a field of seven, including Grade 1 winner Matareya for trainer Brad Cox, multiple Grade 2 winner Wicked Halo for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and Grade 3 winner Pretty Birdie for trainer Norm Casse.

Probable post time for the 6-furlong Matron, which anchors a 10-race card, is 4:58 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 12:35 p.m., with the Matron going as the ninth race.

The projected Matron field from the rail out: I’m the Boss of Me, Francisco Arrieta to ride, 117 pounds, 15-1 on the morning line; Matareya, Flavien Prat, 117, 5-2; Pretty Birdie, David Cabrera, 124, 7-2; Dealing Justice, Isaac Castillo, 124, 15-1; Teddy’s Barino, Frankie Dettori, 121, 7-2; Wicked Halo, Tyler Gaffalione, 117, 2-1; and Samurai Charm, Ricardo Santana Jr., 117, 10-1.

After closing her 2-year-old campaign with a runner-up finish behind eventual Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath in a 1-mile allowance race at Oaklawn, trainer Brad Cox targeted one-turn races for Matareya at 3. Cox was rewarded as Matareya, a homebred daughter of Pioneerofthe Nile for Godolphin, won four consecutive starts, including the $400,000 Beaumont Stakes (G3) at about 7 furlongs in April at Keeneland, $500,000 Eight Belles Stakes (G2) at 7 furlongs in May at Churchill Downs and the $500,000 Acorn Stakes (G1) at 1 mile in June at Belmont Park.

Cox decided to stop on Matareya following a third-place finish in the $500,000 Test Stakes (G1) at 7 furlongs Aug. 6 at Saratoga in preparation for a 4-year-old campaign. A supplemental nominee, the Matron is Matareya’s expected bridge to the $750,000 Derby City Distaff Stakes (G1) for older fillies and mares at 7 furlongs May 6 at Churchill Downs, Cox said. The Matron will be Matareya’s first start against older horses.

“She’s training amazing,” Cox said of Matareya, who has been based this winter and early spring at Fair Grounds. “Three-quarters is probably not her cup of tea, but this is a great spot to get her started. It’s a prep for what we’re hoping will be Kentucky Derby Day in the Derby City Distaff.”

Program favorite Wicked Halo hasn’t started since finishing third in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) at 7 furlongs Nov. 5 at Keeneland.

Sandwiched around a third-place finish behind Matareya and Pretty Birdie in the Eight Belles and the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, Wicked Halo won four consecutive starts, including the $250,000 Prioress Stakes (G2) at 6 furlongs Sept. 2 at Saratoga and the $350,000 Raven Run Stakes (G2) at 7 furlongs Oct. 22 at Keeneland. Wicked Halo ran twice at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting, finishing fourth in the $150,000 Dixie Belle Stakes and third behind Pretty Bridie in the $150,000 Purple Martin Stakes. Both 6-furlong races were for 3-year-old fillies.

After winning the Purple Martin, the speedy Pretty Birdie returned to Oaklawn to win the $150,000 Poinsettia Stakes at 5 ½ furlongs Dec. 17 and run second to Yuugiri in the $150,000 Carousel Stakes at 6 furlongs Feb. 25 in her last start.

“With Pretty Birdie, we have a fitness edge over two really nice fillies,” Casse said, referring to Matareya and Wicked Halo. “But probably more importantly is tactically and race-shape wise, I think we’re at a bit of an advantage. I feel like both of those horses are better suited going a little longer. Personally, I think Pretty Birdie is sitting on a really big race. We’re going to go over there pretty confident.”

Pretty Birdie was beaten 3 ½ lengths by Yuugiri over a sloppy surface after setting fractions of :21.41 for the opening quarter and :44.97 for a half-mile. Pretty Birdie won the Purple Martin and Poinsettia in gate-to-wire fashion. Yuugiri is skipping the Matron in favor of the $600,000 Madison Stakes (G1) for older fillies and mares at 7 furlongs April 8 at Keeneland.

“I just feel like she really likes Oaklawn Park,” Casse said, referring to Pretty Birdie. “I feel like the last race against Yuugiri, I’m not so sure she likes an off track as much as a fast main track. We set some serious fractions in the last race. I don’t know if we’re going to have to do that this go round.”

Pretty Birdie is seeking her fourth career stakes victory. She won the $150,000 Schuylerville (G3) for 2-year-old filly sprinters in 2021 at Saratoga.

I’m the Boss of Me finished second to the Casse-trained Hot and Sultry in the $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for older female sprinters Jan. 21 at Oaklawn for trainer Greg Compton. Teddy’s Barino did not make the trip from California and will be scratched.