02/08/2009 1:37PM

Brave New World


If all goes according to plan over the next eight weeks, Stardom Bound will make her next start against males, in the Santa Anita Derby April 4. Last year's champion 2-year-old filly will come into that race with four consecutive Grade 1 victories, an assumption that she'll only get better as the races get longer, a growing bandwagon of supporters and a crush of media attention -- and the kind of last-out speed figure that usually make horses 20-1 in Derby preps, not the toast of American racing.

Does it matter?

There's nothing complicated or ambiguous about the low final-time rating Stardom Bound will earn on anyone's speed figures for her winning seasonal debut in Saturday's Las Virgenes. Santa Anita ran four consecutive graded stakes from 8 to 9 furlongs Saturday, and Stardom Bound's mile in 1:36 was by far the slowest of the four:

There are three major mitigating circumstances to her performance: pace, trip and fitness.

While it's hard to rate her final-time performance any higher than an 84 considering that Motto Mondo ran nearly two full seconds (and 18 Beyer points) faster winning the off-the-turf Thunder Road one race later,  there was a huge difference in the paces of those two races. Motto Mondo stalked Monterey Jazz's blistering fractions of 45.61 and 1:09.59, while Stardom Bound was last early in a Las Virgenes where the fractions were 47.62 and 1:11.90. She ran her final quarter in just about 24 flat. faster than Motto Mondo did, and that may well be more significant than the pace-hampered final time.

Also, Stardom Bound was boxed in around the turn, and nimbly shot through the brief opening that presented itself in upper stretch. Once clear, she dominantly put away her overmatched rivals. and she did it all in a spot where, trainer Bobby Frankel said before and after the race, she was nowhere near fully cranked up for a peak effort.

Nor was Pioneerof the Nile, who won the G2 Robert B Lewis with a Beyer of 94 in another race where the pace was mild. Four lengths behind a six-furlong time of 1:12.18, Pioneerof the Nile finished strongly, running his final 5-16ths in about 29 seconds flat.

Evaluating these efforts is part of the brave new world of synthetic-track racing, where races are run more like turf than dirt events, final times may be less important than come-home times, and the usual blend of speed and stamina may be changing. Neither Stardom Bound nor Pioneerofthenile has ever raced on dirt, and both could come into the Kentucky Derby as gigantic question marks.

Nor is it at clear where Cowboy Cal, who won the Strub with a mediocre Beyer of 96, fits into the handicap ranks after a pair of narrow victories in G2 races at Santa Anita. He's been first or second on grass and synthetic in 8 of 10 career starts; his other two races were double-digit defeats in his only dirt efforts. The first eight finishers in the Strub finished only two lengths apart, usually not a promising sign of high quality.

The Beyers aren't up yet for Saturday's Fair Grounds races (update: they are now, see chart), where the three graded dirt stakes were all run at a mile and a sixteenth. The 5-year-old Honest Man, last year's Iselin winner, ran almost a full second faster (1:44.16 vs. 1:45.11) winning the Mineshaft H. for older horses than Friesan Fire did taking the Risen Star for 3-year-olds. Between those two races, War Echo showed sharp improvement on her prior form winning the G3 Silverbullerday for 3-year-old fillies in 1:45.20, just nine-hundredths off the Risen Star clocking. The daughter of Tapit (also the sire of Stardom Bound) finished well after being restrained behind the quickest opening six furlongs among the three races -- 1:12.64, as opposed to 1:13.04 in the Mineshaft and a pokey 1:13.64 in the Risen Star.

--The Triple Crown nominations were released late last night and the tally was 401, down from 449 last year and a record 450 in 2007. Churchill Downs and Triple Crown officials attributed the decline to the national economic downturn. Horses can still be nominated by March 28 at a penalty late fee ($6,000 rather than $600.) Click here for a list of the 401 early nominees.