03/12/2007 12:00AM

Fast fillies take center stage


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Kentucky Derby can be a great distraction, with its obsessive/compulsive focus on the 3-year-old male of the Thoroughbred species. Beginning each year in late January, and lasting until the chances of a Triple Crown winner are exhausted, the Derby-age colts clog the arteries of the racing world, reducing all other divisions to bit players and novelty acts.

This year, the Derby misdirection is threatening to steal deserving attention away from a growing number of 3- and 4-year-old fillies who have done everything in their power to earn their own audience. Last weekend, they were brilliantly on display.

On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, trainer Jonathan Sheppard peeled another layer away from Augustin Stable's gray filly Forever Together and was rewarded with a two-length victory in the Grade 2 Forward Gal at seven furlongs. Now 3 for 3, Forever Together is a daughter of Belong to Me.

An hour or so later, at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Mistical Plan made fools of those who thought she was merely a sprinter by leading her eight opponents in the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks on a fruitless chase through 1 1/16 miles. A California-bred daughter of Danzig's son Game Plan, Mistical Plan is trained by Doug O'Neill for Paul Reddam.

Topping off the afternoon, out West at Santa Anita Park, John Amerman's Balance performed as if great things are ahead by overcoming a dead stop to win the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap in a wild 1 1/8-mile scrap with Ermine. David Hofmans trains Balance, a daughter of Thunder Gulch.

On Sunday, Florida's answer to the shot fired by Balance came in the Grade 2 Rampart Handicap, when Miss Shop, a daughter of Deputy Minister, carried the venerable colors of Hobeau Farm's Jack Dreyfuss to a victory of nearly seven lengths, also at nine furlongs, and at the expense of the returning Breeders' Cup Distaff champion Round Pond. Trainer Allen Jerkens, obviously inspired by fellow Hall of Famer Sheppard, gets the credit for Miss Shop whether he wants it or not.

It can be argued that the best was saved for last, and those present at Sunday's 68th running of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks would have to agree after watching Rags to Riches bury her competition by a 5 1/2-length margin that was expanding with every stride.

Victor Espinoza, who rode Balance to victory in the 2006 version of the Santa Anita Oaks, found himself without a mount this time around, but had no serious regrets.

"I was in the perfect position," Espinoza said. "Right here in the room watching her on TV."

By adding a victory in the 1 1/16-mile Oaks to the Las Virgenes at one mile, Rags to Riches now has duplicated the Santa Anita double clocked by a healthy number of fillies in the past, including champions Serena's Song and Surfside, Kentucky Oaks winners Fran's Valentine and Lite Light, and Kentucky Oaks runner-up Lakeway.

Still, it is a sign of the times that trainer Todd Pletcher, co-owner Michael Tabor and anyone else in the Rags to Riches circle were being asked, in the wake of her Santa Anita Oaks, if running in the Kentucky Derby was in the cards - as if the Kentucky Oaks was some sort of fallback compromise for the meek.

The answer, though not emphatic enough, was a welcomed "no." For now, Rags to Riches deserves her own stage under her own terms, against the best that the female half of the 2004 foal crop has to offer. The last thing she needs in her life is field of 20 colts, most of them barely housebroken and all of them prone to misbehavior when crammed together on the first Saturday in May.

Anyway, with just four starts to her name, Rags to Riches is still a work in progress. Her comically wide trip in the Las Virgenes became an instant urban legend, but there was no guarantee she would be the kind of competitor to maximize a perfect trip. Then Garrett Gomez asked her to run on the final bend - after getting that perfect trip - and Rags to Riches sprinted away from honest fillies such as Cash Included, Silver Swallow, and Baroness Thatcher as if they had said something deeply offending.

"That's the way we want it - no drama," Gomez said. "The other day we were so damn wide the whole way I could never get over. I was trying to let her relax and get a breather, but I had to keep using her to keep up. I knew she was going faster than the horses on the inside - I could feel it - but when she'd make a run, it looked like she was only keeping up. She must have lost a sixteenth of a mile."

Rags to Riches got that sixteenth back in the Oaks, coasting easily through the final hundred yards as if the 1 1/8-mile of the Kentucky Oaks would be a snap - which it should be for a daughter of A.P. Indy.

As for the future, fans can only hope the results of last weekend's display bodes bountiful for the filly and mare races of the summer and fall. A Breeders' Cup Distaff featuring Balance, Rags to Riches, Miss Shop and a resurgent Round Pond might be too much to ask right now. But we can dream.