SheerDramaBy the end of the 2015 racing season, Sheer Drama and Stopchargingmaria had combined to win five Grade 1 events and earn more than $4 million. Their connections could have retired them to their respective broodmare bands with few regrets.

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However, both mares returned to the track for 2016 – and rewarded their connections, and the crowd that braved the chilly weather at Keeneland on Saturday, with a stellar showdown in their season debuts. The two dueled the length of the stretch in the Grade 1, $300,000 Madison Stakes, with Sheer Drama prevailing by a neck.

Sheer Drama ($18.80), last seen finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Keeneland, exacted some revenge on Stopchargingmaria, who won that event. Wavell Avenue, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, finished another two lengths back in third.

“I talked to [Keeneland racing secretary] Ben Huffman about this race early in the year, and thought it might be a good starting spot. Never expected it to come up this tough,” said Sheer Drama’s trainer, David Fawkes. “But she ran her race – she brought her ‘A’ game. She worked so good last week, I thought she could do anything.”

When the gates opened, California invaders Sunday Rules and Enchanting Lady bounced out quickly, narrowly leading Fioretti through an opening quarter-mile of 22.42 seconds. Stopchargingmaria, breaking from post 10 under Javier Castellano, quickly cleared part of the field to sit in fifth early, while Sheer Drama and Joe Bravo, breaking from the rail after the scratch of Cavorting, settled in seventh behind horses.

“As the gates broke she took really good position,” Bravo said.

Sunday Rules still led the field through the half in 44.86, but was beginning to feel heavy pressure from Fioretti. Meanwhile, Bravo worked out a clear path for Sheer Drama, who moved into the five path around the far turn and into the lane, with Stopchargingmaria to her outside.

“The outside post didn’t help her much, and I had to go wide a little bit,” Castellano said. “That might have cost me the race but it’s something you just gotta deal with. You have to go through it and hope for much the best.”

Sheer Drama struck the lead inside the quarter pole, but Stopchargingmaria, still with momentum on the outside, came to her. The two prevailed in a battle for the length of the stretch, with Sheer Drama edging clear at the wire after being headed. The final time for the seven furlongs was 1:22.07.

“Sheer Drama was having none of that,” Bravo said of the moment when his mare was headed. “She was passed and she didn’t care. And she outran the filly from the top of the lane to the wire. She just out-horsepowered her.”

After Wavell Avenue – who rallied from 10th in her first start since the Filly and Mare Sprint – in third, it was another length back to Grade 1 winner Birdatthewire in fourth.

Sheer Drama, a Florida-bred daughter of Burning Roma who runs as a homebred for Harold Queen, came into the best form of her career last summer at age 5, winning the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap and Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes. With the win in the Madison – her ninth career stakes win or placing – she pushed her earnings past $1.6 million. Fawkes admitted that he “begged” Queen to keep the star racemare in training for another season rather than retiring her.

“When you only have one Grade 1 horse in your barn you do a lot of begging,” Fawkes said. “Mr. Queen was really thinking about breeding her. I went out to the farm [to see her, and said], ‘Look at her, she’s put a bunch of weight on. She’s matured even more.’ I’m really glad we brought her back.”

Stopchargingmaria, a multiple graded stakes winner as a juvenile, blossomed into one of the top 3-year-old fillies in the summer of 2014, winning the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and Grade 1 winning the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga and finishing second to older foes in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes at Belmont. At the end of that season, owner Mike Repole offered her at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall selected mixed sale, but she failed to meet her reserve with a high bid of $3.15 million. Town and Country Farms subsequently stepped in to purchase her privately, and decided to leave her with Todd Pletcher to race on. She finished second in the 2015 Madison before winning the Grade 3 Allaire DuPont Distaff and Grade 3 Shuvee Handicap. After finishing fourth to Sheer Drama in the Personal Ensign, she outdueled eventual 3-year-old champion Stellar Wind by a neck for the Distaff win.

Stopchargingmaria and Sheer Drama finished second and third to three-time champion Beholder in Eclipse Award balloting for champion older dirt female of 2015. Both will contend in that division on the East Coast this year. Fawkes said a probable next start for Sheer Drama is the Grade 1 La Troienne Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard May 6 at Churchill Downs. Shannon Potter, the president of Town and Country Farm, said Stopchargingmaria will target the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps on the Belmont Stakes undercard June 11 in New York.