05/11/2006 11:00PM

Fantastic Shirl filly to beat

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Anybody paying just a little bit of attention will notice a somewhat unusual theme as the Sunday program unfolds at Churchill Downs: The first four races are all restricted to females in an obvious tribute to the mothers who have been accompanied to the track in celebration of Mother's Day.

For good measure, the featured ninth race also is restricted to the distaff set, being for 3-year-old fillies eligible for first-level allowance conditions. A full field of 12 was entered in the $54,000 feature, which is scheduled to be run at 1 1/16 miles over the turf, and a filly with a proud turf heritage figures as the one to beat.

That filly, , was sired by Fantastic Light, the 2001 Breeders' Cup Turf winner, and was produced by Lady Shirl, the Noel Hickey mare who earned more than $1 million as one of the greatest Illinois-breds of all time. Fantastic Shirl, bred and owned by Dell Ridge Farm, won at first asking in February at Gulfstream Park before finishing seventh, then third, in her first cracks at allowance company.

Fantastic Shirl, trained by Bill Mott, was a creditable third as the favorite under similar conditions in her last start, on April 23 at Keeneland. Treated with the anti-bleeder medication Lasix for the first time, Fantastic Shirl prompted the pace before looming a menacing presence in midstretch, only to fade mildly in the final furlong to be beaten 2 1/4 lengths.

A handful of challengers appear capable of giving Fantastic Shirl a run for her money Sunday. Those fillies include the uncoupled Dale Romans duo of , an Honour and Glory filly who switches to the turf after drubbing maidens in her career debut on opening weekend of this meet; and Almost Spinning, a British import who retains hot jockey Rafael Bejarano after finishing a decent third in her stateside debut last month at Keeneland.

Two of the 12 fillies entered - Joyful Rhapsody and Miss Fury - carry a main-track-only designation, meaning only as many as 10 will start if the race stays on turf.

Two of the other nine races on the Sunday card - the fourth and seventh - also are $54,000 first-level allowances. Sweet Sugaree takes a sizable class drop as the filly to beat in the fourth, while Yate's Black Cat is looking to finally get lucky in the seventh.