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JUNE 12, 2009

by Jennifer Caldwell

The Triple Crown dominates the conversation during the winter and spring months, with this three-year-old colt being compared to that sophomore gelding. This season, however, a pair of three-year-old fillies became a part of the dialogue.

Sophomore recap: At the beginning of the season, champion STARDOM BOUND (Tapit) continued her winning streak by taking the Las Virgenes S. (G1) on February 7. Her connections, who purchased the gray miss for $5.7 million after her easy Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) victory, made it clear she was headed the Kentucky Derby (G1) route. Those plans were derailed when the lanky lass barely managed to eke out a nose win in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1). She was given one more chance to prove herself worthy of the "Run for the Roses" in the Ashland S. (G1), but could do no better than third on that day.

Not only was Stardom Bound then taken out of consideration for the Derby, she was eventually ruled out of the Kentucky Oaks (G1). Her connections announced their intention to give her a long break and bring her back for a fall campaign, so her status for the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (G1) is very doubtful. However, she is owned by IEAH Stables and trained by Richard Dutrow, so anything is possible with them calling the shots.

Even while Stardom Bound's Triple Crown aspirations were beginning to falter, the name RACHEL ALEXANDRA (Medaglia d'Oro) began cropping up. An eight-length romp in the February 15 Martha Washington S. at Oaklawn Park made everyone sit up and take notice. Following a stroll through the sloppy Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), and jockey Calvin Borel's exuberant celebrations in the stretch run, many were calling for the bay filly's inclusion in the big dance on the first Saturday in May. Those calls became louder after Rachel Alexandra added an 8 3/4-length score in the Fantasy S. (G2) to her line, but her connections had stated from the beginning that she was headed for the Oaks, and continued with that plan.

Rachel Alexandra simply towered over her rivals in the Oaks. Never asked by Borel at any point in the nine-furlong event, not even with a shake of the reins, she pulled her way into contention leaving the backstretch and began opening up. She loped home a record-setting 20 1/4-length winner. Less than a week later she was sold to Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables and moved from the barn of trainer Hal Wiggins to Steve Asmussen. Jackson didn't share her previous owners' aversion of running fillies against the boys, and Rachel Alexandra continued her historical journey two weeks after the Oaks.

Entered in the Preakness S. (G1), Rachel Alexandra once again proved her heart and courage by gutting out a length score over Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Mine That Bird (Birdstone). The second jewel of the Triple Crown became the filly's sixth straight victory, and she's now receiving a slight break after a grueling winter and spring campaign. Though Jackson and Asmussen haven't formally announced her next start, the June 27 Mother Goose S. (G1) at Belmont Park has been bandied about as a possibility.

Division leader: After everything that Rachel Alexandra's done, it's hard to name ZENYATTA (Street Cry [Ire]) the division leader, but the reigning champion and last year's Ladies' Classic queen made a successful return to the races in the May 23 Milady H. (G2) and, thus, earned the top spot. Running in last just behind stablemate LIFE IS SWEET (Storm Cat), Zenyatta circled the field on the turn and drew off to score by 1 3/4 lengths. The win appeared easy, but, in my opinion, was lacking something. She just didn't seem to display the same drive that really set her races apart last year. Admittedly, jockey Mike Smith never appeared to ask her for any run and it was her first start of the season, so I'll give her a pass for the meantime.

My biggest concern is that the West Coast juggernaut may not continue to get things her own way this year, and the biggest threat could come from her own barn and not from Rachel Alexandra, though that one is still looming on the horizon. Life is Sweet suffered her first loss of the year in the Milady but never gave up, still fighting at the end. The fellow John Shirreffs trainee earlier captured the El Encino S. (G2), La Canada S. (G2) and Santa Margarita Invitational H. (G1), all over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. She did so in the same style as Zenyatta, coming from the rear of the field.

In the Milady, jockey Garrett Gomez sent Life is Sweet to the inside while Zenyatta and Smith were in the center of the track. If Life is Sweet had been allowed to eyeball her stablemate down the stretch, the result may not have changed, but I think it would have been a bit closer. The four-year-old bay is no quitter.

With both Life is Sweet and Rachel Alexandra, who also has experience winning over synthetic tracks, now gunning for her, Zenyatta is going to have to stay on her toes to retain the top spot in this Diary.

Let's not forget: At this early point in the year, a whole gallery of fillies and mares are lining up for their shot at Breeders' Cup glory and a shiny new Eclipse trophy. SEVENTH STREET (Street Cry [Ire]) tops the rest of the division with a 5 3/4-length score in the Apple Blossom H. (G1) on April 4. Trained at that time by Kiaran McLaughlin, she successfully stretched out past a mile for the first time in the 8 1/2-furlong test, registering a 105 BRIS Speed rating in the process.

The four-year-old lass has been switched from Darley to Godolphin since the Apple Blossom and will be making her first start for new conditioner Saeed bin Suroor in Saturday's Ogden Phipps H. (G1) at Belmont. Among those she'll face in that 1 1/16-mile event are stablemate MUSIC NOTE (A.P. Indy) and SEATTLE SMOOTH (Quiet American). Fans will also get their first look this year of three-time Grade 1 queen Music Note in the Phipps, as she was last seen running third in the 2008 Ladies' Classic. The bay lass returned to training in April at Keeneland, then moved to Big Sandy in mid-May, where she has been working well in preparation for her debut.

Seattle Smooth, on the other hand, has already racked up two graded wins from as many starts in 2009. The Tony Dutrow charge actually continued her win streak from 2008, when she easily added the Go for Wand S. and Cotillion S. (G2) to her line. This season, the four-year-old has posted victories in the Bed o' Roses H. (G2) and Shuvee H. (G2), and will be going for her fifth straight in the Phipps. Like Music Note, Seattle Smooth is no stranger to winning at Belmont. Throw Seventh Street into the mix and you have a stellar match up set to go.

Distaff fans should also be on the lookout for a pair of three-year-old fillies, PAYTON D'ORO (Medaglia d'Oro) and HIGHTAP (Tapit).

Payton d'Oro is currently riding her own winning skein, taking her fourth straight in the Black-Eyed Susan S. (G2) one day prior to Rachel Alexandra's run in the Preakness. That streak began when trainer Larry Jones stretched the bay out to two turns at Oaklawn Park and has shown no signs of slowing down. She scored a 4 3/4-length win in the Instant Racing S., but never took on Rachel Alexandra when that one was burning up the Hot Springs, Arkansas, track. That showdown could still occur, though, as Jones indicated the Mother Goose might be in Payton d'Oro's future.

Hightap was doing well at the beginning of the season, but then threw in a subpar, last-of-seven effort when making her stakes bow in the Honeybee S. (G3). She returned in the Dogwood S. (G3) at Churchill on May 30 and proceeded to draw off for a 3 1/4-length trouncing. Asmussen revealed after the Dogwood that Hightap had been suffering from a hind foot bruise in the Honeybee, but didn't mention any future return dates for the gray.

Two to watch: A couple of rivalries may take off in the coming months, among both the older and sophomore sets. First up, GABBY'S GOLDEN GAL (Medaglia d'Or) (yes, another top filly by that sire) ruined the five-race win streak of JUSTWHISTLEDIXIE (Dixie Union) when holding that challenger by 1 3/4 lengths in Saturday's Acorn S. (G1). Gabby's Golden Gal captured the Sunland Park Oaks by 13 lengths earlier in the season, and had her first real stakes challenge in the Kentucky Oaks, where she set the pace while stalked by Rachel Alexandra before being overhauled by that one. The public didn't give her much of a shot in the Acorn, sending her off the seventh pick in the nine-horse field, but the game lass went out and led all the way home.

Justwhistledixie was considered Rachel Alexandra's biggest threat heading into the Oaks, but developed a foot problem and was scratched less than two hours before the race. Prior to the Kentucky Oaks, she had easily won the Davona Dale S. (G2) and Bonnie Miss S. (G2). The Acorn was supposed to be her welcome back party, and she ran well in her return off the 71-day break, rallying from fourth to take down second. If Gabby's Golden Gal and Justwhistledixie meet up again, the latter could turn the tables.

MISS ISELLA (Silver Charm), like Gabby's Golden Gal, spoiled a five-race winning-skein, this time put together by the undefeated ONE CAROLINE (Unbridled's Song). The Ian Wilkes charge was returning to her favored track of Churchill Downs in the Louisville Distaff (G2) on the Kentucky Oaks undercard and squeezed through on the inside to score by three parts of a length. One Caroline led from the start of the 1 1/16-mile affair and may have been bullied by Miss Isella, even shying away a bit when that one pushed through on the rail. Miss Isella is set to make her next start at Churchill in Saturday's Fleur de Lis H. (G2), but I'm really looking forward to seeing her run against One Caroline again.

Hard knockers: EUPHONY (Forest Wildcat) is truly a hard-knocking filly, registering her second win of the year, fifth straight and eighth overall when taking the Arlington Matron H. (G3) on May 23. She set the opening quarter of the Matron before settling back into the second flight of runners while on the inside. Euphony came on again in the stretch and easily held off a challenge from the runner-up. The lass earned a nice 100 Speed figure for her Matron score, and is now proven on a synthetic track. The Donnie Von Hemel-trained dark bay has spent her career thus far competing in the Midwest but, in my opinion, now deserves a shot at the next level up on either the East or West Coast.

CARLSBAD (Rocky Bar) has already been given her chance at the big leagues, and proved the transition to be no problem. The Arizona-bred miss demolished her competition while running at Turf Paradise, then was sent to California to try the Santa Paula S. (G3). One 3 1/4-length victory later, and the dark bay was finally given some credit, though still not as much as what her previous accomplishments really warranted. That changed when she suffered her first career loss in the Railbird S. (G3), with her critics quickly consigning her back to the lower rungs on the stakes ladder.

Carlsbad took the disparagement in stride and showed up on Sunday in the Hollywood Oaks (G2), where she stretched out past a mile for the first time. Leading gate-to-wire in the 1 1/16-mile test, the filly got back on the winning track with a half-length victory. Trainer Jeff Mullins said after the race they would cut her back to a sprint and look at the Summit of Speed at Calder. Carlsbad may prefer the shorter distances, but she's demonstrated that longer distances are well within her capabilities. I hope they demonstrate a little more faith and give her a shot at the upper echelons.

Up-and-comer: Three fillies on the East Coast should be added to Stable Alerts everywhere. The most recent to catch my attention was EVER ALWAYS (Mr. Nugget), a chestnut miss who is blossoming under the tutelage of trainer Jason Servis. After taking her maiden debut via disqualification on June 25 of last year, she wasn't seen again until reappearing in a May 17 allowance back at Monmouth Park. She added a 9 1/4-length win to her line that afternoon, and showed up Wednesday to demolish five rivals in a second-level allowance at the Oceanport, New Jersey, track. After tracking the early pace she took over under her own power and drew off through the stretch, eventually crossing under the line 15 1/4 lengths the best and earning a 102 Speed number. The performance was reminiscent of Rachel Alexandra's pulling away in the Martha Washington, and Ever Always should be heading to face stakes foes next out.

A pair of Todd Pletcher fillies have already passed their stakes conditions and a try against graded competition will hopefully be up next for both. YES SHE'S A LADY (Yes It's True) routed her rivals in the May 13 Deceit S. going a mile at Belmont Park, wiring the field by 10 lengths on the line. The three-year-old miss entered that race off a 7 3/4-length allowance victory at Philadelphia Park, and was most recently seen breezing a half-mile in :48 3/5 at Belmont on Sunday. Stablemate LIGHT GREEN (Pleasantly Perfect) deserves a stab at stretching out following an eight-length score in the Fall Aspen S. at Belmont on May 15. The bay lass netted a 104 Speed rating for that six-furlong event, an improve on the 100 she received when taking a Gulfstream Park allowance by 6 1/2 lengths in mid-April. She also worked on Sunday, posting four furlongs in :51.


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