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Photo courtesy Coglianese Photos/Leslie Martin

By Claire Novak, @BH_CNovak, Blood-Horse

Making her first start since a sixth in the 2012 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), Garland Williamson's Hard Not to Like proved her quality with a half-length victory in the $100,000 Marusha's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park Jan. 5.

The newly-turned 4-year-old Hard Spun   filly made her turf return at odds of 7-1 and finished 1 1/16 miles on the lawn in 1:41.70, beating out Channel Lady and 2-1 favorite Leading Astray.

It was also Hard Not to Like's first start since transferring to the barn of trainer Michael Matz; she was formerly trained by Gail Cox and beat colts in the 2011 Cup and Saucer Stakes over the all weather track at Woodbine before trying the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs, where she finished a credible fifth just three lengths behind Stephanie's Kitten.

She only ran twice as a 3-year-old, finishing second in the Ashland (gr. I) on Polytrack at Keeneland to launch her Oaks bid.

In the Marshua's River, Hard Not to Like relaxed well in third under jockey Joe Rocco Jr., tracking early fractions of :24.81, :48.91, and 1:12.92 set by Frontside and Joel Rosario. Those two opened a four-length lead heading into the backside, with Channel Lady in second and Hard Not to Like on the rail.

Frontside still had the lead by a length heading for home, but Hard Not to Like was ready to pounce from her contending spot along the rail. Through a mile in 1:35.95, Leading Astray was shuffled back on the inside and lost her chance at the win, lacking running room as Hard Not to Like closed strongly inside.

The winner eked out a narrow advantage heading down to the wire as Channel Lady gave her a battle on the outside, Leading Astray found the clear too late, 2 1/2 lengths back in third.

Hard Not to Like returned $17.60, $7.60, and $4 while Channel Lady paid $4 and $3 and Leading Astray brought $2.80. Chokurei, Frontside, 2012 Marshua's River winner Heavenly Landing, Frolic's Revenge, and Affair Dabbler completed the order of finish. Filare L'Oro and Fantasy of Flight were scratched.

Hard Not to Like was bred in Ontario out of the Tactical Cat mare Like a Gem. The Marusha's River victory improved her record to 4-1 from eight starts, with earnings of $450,035.

HARD NOT TO LIKE AND JOSEPH ROCCO JR AFTER THE RACE

Hard Not To Like Courtney Heeney MRiver

Photo courtesy Coglianese Photos/Courtney Heeney

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