06/04/2009 11:00PM

Champion Forever Together hasn't lost a step


ELMONT, N. Y. - It would be understandable if the connections of the seven fillies and mares opposing Forever Together in Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 Just a Game Stakes harbored hopes that she wasn't quite as lethal now as she was last year when she was champion female turf horse. It might be their only reason for hope in this one-mile turf event. But if they did think Forever Together was even slightly less imposing this year, they would be mistaken.

"I don't see anything that says she's not as good," Forever Together's trainer, Jonathan Sheppard, said earlier this week. "And I don't want to jinx anything by saying she's better. But what we have done is we've learned more about her, about how to train her and how to ride her. Let's just say I know she's up to the test. I just hope us humans don't mess it up."

That's unlikely. Sheppard has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1990. He knows what he's doing. And Forever Together clearly knows what she's doing, too. In the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, her only start this year, she picked right up where she left off last fall, winning by a length. She concluded her championship campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

"We would like to duplicate what she did last year, with another Breeders' Cup race and Eclipse Award," Sheppard said. "It won't be an easy task, but this is the next step."

Forever Together was a relative unknown and went off at 44-1 when she competed in last year's Just a Game. But in finishing third with the sort of powerful late run that would become her calling card, she offered a glimpse of what was to come in her other big wins of 2008, the Diana at Saratoga and First Lady at Keeneland.

Forever Together will be going for her fourth straight victory Saturday, but there is another mare in the Just a Game who has her beat at least on that score. Diamondrella, a stretch-out turf sprinter, will be going for her sixth straight win. In fact, Diamondrella is only a head away from being undefeated in seven starts, since moving into trainer Angel Penna Jr.'s barn more than a year ago.

"You have to remember," Penna said, "there's not a lot out there for turf sprinters like her. This distance will be about as far as she can go. But given the fact that she's doing so well now, this is the time to try it, even with this race coming up as tough as it is. It's not only Forever Together. This will be a tough race all around, as Grade 1 races at Belmont are."

The others in the Just a Game are Captain's Lover, a Group 1 winner in her native South Africa; Modern Look, a Group 2 winner in France last year; My Princess Jess and Carribean Sunset, first and second in the Grade 3 Beaugay Stakes early in the Belmont meet; I Lost My Choo, winner of 2 of 3 this year, including the Grade 3 Honey Fox; and Raw Silk, winner of the South Beach Stakes in her only start this year.