05/26/2010 11:00PM

Forever Together tests the West

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - They used to come to California all the time, by the wagon load. Champions of the East, with nothing really to prove, leaving their midseason comfort zone to spread the word that Jim Morrison was drinking his bath water when he wrote, "The West is the best."

It didn't always work out. Kelso was a bust in two Hollywood Park starts. Arts and Letters broke down. Foolish Pleasure flopped. And don't even ask about Seattle Slew. Until he got to Hollywood Park, he'd never lost a race. Maybe it was the time change.

Then again, it's hard to keep a good horse down. Dr. Fager, Nodouble, Fort Marcy, Cigar, and Skip Away are just a few of the Eastern champs who were tempted westward and took home the money. These were wondrous sightings, reaffirming the deepest nature of America's racing game as a grand pageant of wandering players, ready and willing to go anywhere the reward is seen at least as great as the risk.

Forever Together is a champion, have no doubt, even though her active reign expired in essence last Oct. 24 when she failed to defend her title in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, her late run coming up about two lengths short. She was 5, and

retirement was logically considered by her owner, George Strawbridge. But then the idea was scrapped when it was clear the mare still had plenty of tread and more than a few good miles left in the tank.

What a concept - Thoroughbreds racing at the top of the game at the age of 6. If Zenyatta and Forever Together have started a trend, it can only be hoped others will follow.

Forever Together arrived at Hollywood Park earlier in the week to prepare for the $250,000 Gamely, to be run at 1 1/8 miles late Saturday afternoon. The Gamely is a Grade 1 event, which is why Forever Together's people would be interested at all.

Her trainer, Jonathan Sheppard, is loaded with top-class turf fillies this year. Keeping them out of each other's way will be both his problem and his pleasure. On Thursday morning, before catching a plane to the coast to join Forever Together, he was watching two of them - Rainbow View and Fantasia - canter together around the track at his Pennsylvania farm.

"To me, she's as good as she's ever been," Sheppard said, when asked about Forever Together. "At this point, she's done everything we've asked of her, so we're just going to enjoy her this year. We're not expecting her to win every race she runs in. But as long she holds her own in graded 1's and 2's, that's fine."

Forever Together began the year finishing second in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, missing by a half-length to front-running Wasted Tears. On Saturday, the champ must face California's best grass mare, Tuscan Evening, which is the way it should be in a race like the Gamely.

Sheppard is not overly concerned that Forever Together has never raced over the Hollywood turf. Her East Coast form held up very well in two Breeders' Cup appearances on the Santa Anita grass. Of more anxious anticipation is how the mare will respond to a new rider, Rajiv Maragh, who steps in for the injured Julien Leparoux.

"Actually, he does know her quite well," Sheppard said of Maragh. "He sat right on her flank and beat her twice with Diamondrella. When he beat her on Wasted Tears in the Jenny Wiley, he didn't see much of her, since he wired the field that day."

Leparoux had ridden Forever Together in her last 11 starts, winning four and never finishing worse than third while coming on fast at the end.

"There have been times in the past when I've thought that maybe Julien was a little over-confident with her at certain stages of a race,"

Sheppard noted. "Then again, maybe that's the way she needs to be ridden, and if you try to make her do something before she's ready maybe she'll resent it. This may be a chance to answer the question. Rajiv is a bit more aggressive type of rider. If she's not moving when he asks her lightly for a response, I think he'll ask her a bit more strongly."

While Forever Together failed to repeat as champion turf mare in 2009, Sheppard's season was otherwise replete with highlights, led by champion female sprinter Informed Decision, champion steeplechaser Mixed Up, grass stalwart Just as Well, and the stakes-winning comeback of 9-year-old Cloudy's Knight, who just missed in the Breeders' Cup Marathon.

This year, Cloudy's Knight reached the end of the line, hardly unusual for age 10, and Informed Decision has lost twice, most recently over a nasty track at Churchill Downs in the Humana Distaff. But Rainbow View won the Gallorette at Pimlico, Just as Well returned to action with a strong second the same day in the Dixie Stakes, and Fantasia was a promising runner-up in her American debut at Keeneland.

"I have absolutely convinced myself and prepared myself mentally that with all the good luck we had last year, it would be compensated with a little bit of bad luck this year," Sheppard said. "It has been an up-and-down year, with occasions when we've had an absence of good luck, but not what you'd call devastating bad luck."

Sheppard will take all the luck he can get with Forever Together in the Gamely.

"We know how tough Tuscan Evening can be with an uncontested lead," Sheppard said. "For that matter, she can be tough under any circumstances. Coming to her home grounds, I'm not taking it lightly. But still, our horse has won a Breeders' Cup race and an Eclipse Award and she hasn't . . . yet."