04/20/2009 11:00PM

Filly crown up for grabs


A few short months ago, Stardom Bound was the reigning queen of the 3-year-old fillies pointing toward the prestigious Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 1.

Then along came Rachel Alexandra to score dominating victories in the Fair Grounds Oaks in March and the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park in April to serve notice on Stardom Bound and her loyal supporters.

For her part, the stretch-running Stardom Bound did win the Santa Anita Oaks on March 7 for her fifth straight Grade 1 stakes stretching back to her whirlwind 2-year-old campaign. But even though Stardom Bound won the Santa Anita Oaks with a late burst of speed, her margin over three other moderately accomplished 3-year-old fillies was so narrow that all three shipped east to challenge her in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 4.

While many horseplayers still believed in Stardom Bound's superiority - knocking her odds down to 7-10 - she never was a serious win threat in the Ashland, finishing third, three lengths behind 24-1 shot Hooh Why, who had finished third in the four-horse Santa Anita Oaks photo.

Finishing a strong second in the Ashland was late-developing Gozzip Girl, winner of three turf races, including a Grade 3 stakes at Gulfstream on March 15. Judging by her fine try in the Ashland, we know now that Gozzip Girl handles Polytrack as well as grass, which is no surprise to those who have noticed a compatibility of form on those two surfaces. In the Kentucky Oaks, we will find out if Gozzip Girl can translate that degree of versatility to dirt. Her only dirt trace was a sixth in her career debut at Belmont Park last September, when a one-mile maiden race came off the grass.

The consequences of Stardom Bound's defeat go deeper than the fact that Rachel Alexandra now has moved into the dominant favorite's role for the 135th Oaks. Last weekend, Stardom Bound's owners, IEAH Stables, took a cold, hard look at the filly's last two performances and announced that this daughter of Tapit will not run in the Oaks or any other race for the next few months. She's going to the sidelines, for "a badly needed break," said the stable's principal spokesman, Michael Iavarone.

Bottom line? The door suddenly has opened wide for Rachel Alexandra and the Western-based fillies who were mixing it up with Stardom Bound to take a real run at the top spot in the division.

So, while most horseplayers and horsemen are focused on the Kentucky Derby, this is a good time to take a broad look at several 3-year-old fillies who are likely to make their presence felt in Grade 1 stakes for the next several months - until we see what Stardom Bound brings back to the fray, possibly at Saratoga or Del Mar.

* Hooh Why has clearly improved and is proven on synthetic tracks. We will find out soon if she needs those surfaces to play at the Grade 1 level.

* Nan, a close fourth in the Santa Anita Oaks and a fair fifth in the Ashland, seems a cut below the best, but has never competed on dirt, and we have seen as many horses improve when given the opportunity as have failed.

* Be Fair, fourth in both the Honeybee at Oaklawn and the Ashland in her last two outings, is on the fringe of legit Grade 1 contenders, but given that she is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who has developed countless champions, there is room to expect improvement.

* Gaby's Golden Girl, who shipped over to Sunland Park in New Mexico from California to score a 13-length victory in Sunland Park Oaks on March 29, obviously is improving. Perhaps of equal import, she is following along the same path trainer Bob Baffert used to develop Tough Tiz's Sis, who won the same Sunland Park race in 2007 before she became a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner.

* War Kill, who upset heavily favored Evita Argentina in Keeneland's Beaumont Stakes at about seven furlongs on April 8, probably will not go in the Oaks, as trainer Ken McPeek plans to look for an easier spot in May. But McPeek has stated that he thinks War Kill is going to be a factor at the Grade 1 level sometime this summer.

* Selva, who gave War Kill a stiff battle through the stretch in the Beaumont, also is on the improve and should be closely watched, perhaps at slightly longer distances.

* Evita Argentina, a strong one-turn runner in previous outings, was no threat when she ran fourth in the Beaumont but still might be given a chance to stretch out in the Oaks if she trains superbly this weekend.

* Justwhistledixie, a winner of five straight, including the recent nine-furlong Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream Park, is one of the three Kiaran McLaughlin-trained 3-year-old fillies who just might be up to the task of giving Rachel Alexandra a serious battle in the Oaks and beyond. A daughter of Dixie Union, Justwhistledixie obviously is perfectly comfortable on dirt and already has handled the Oaks distance. Notwithstanding the hype surrounding Rachel Alexandra, this is a filly who deserves a real chance to upset the favorite. Her stablemates Fitz Just Right and Dream Play also may be factors at the Grade 1 level during the next few months.

* Fitz Just Right, winner of the OBS Championship at Ocala in February, is being pointed for the Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico on May 15, but she is "training so well, we might put her in the Oaks too," McLaughlin said last weekend.

* Dream Play, the recent 5 1/4-length winner of the one-mile Comely Stakes on a sloppy track at Aqueduct, may rank below her two accomplished stablemates and others in the division, but the Comely was her first outing beyond six furlongs, and it would be best to see how she performs in the Nassau County at seven furlongs at Belmont Park on Kentucky Derby Day, May 2, before we conclude she is just a wet-track specialist. The Grade 1 Acorn at one mile on the Belmont Stakes Day card, June 6, is another possible target.

* Don't Forget Gil, a New York-bred winner of the 1 1/16-mile Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs on March 14, was second in the Comely for trainer Mark Hennig and does seem the type who will appreciate more distance. The nine-furlong Mother Goose on June 27 and the 1 1/4-mile Coaching Club American Oaks on July 25 are two potential long-range targets. But, realistically, Rachel Alexandra and the fillies who perform well in the Oaks also are likely to be pointing for those races.

Additional competition in those Grade 1 stakes also may come from some fillies returning to form or competition.

These include Laragh, a high-class turf and synthetic-track performer who was no factor as the heavy favorite in the Comely; Sky Diva, a Grade 1 performer as a 2-year-old who nevertheless has been on the sidelines since a weak performance in her 2008 finale; and Haka, a useful sort who was second to Stardom Bound in the Las Virgenes at Santa Anita on Feb. 7, when Stardom Bound was in peak form. Likewise, Rachel Alexandra certainly will be in the mix for the traditional Grade 1's at Belmont, especially if she lives up to the expectations of those closest to her.

Going into the Oaks, Rachel Alexandra's dominating score in the Fantasy at Oaklawn on April 5, coupled with a 2008 stakes victory over the Churchill Downs racing strip, gives her a dual advantage that may be difficult to overcome. Moreover, jockey Calvin Borel already has labeled this daughter of Medaglia d'Oro as "the best filly" he has ever ridden.

"She's just unbelievable," Borel said after a recent workout at Churchill. "She just gets better and better."

Rachel Alexandra has 6 wins in 9 career outings and earnings of $621,440.