03/31/2011 1:48PM

Gulfstream: Unrivaled Belle returns to face Awesome Maria in Rampart


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – As good a year as Unrivaled Belle had in 2010, imagine how good it could have been had she not had to run against horses trained by Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher-trained fillies and mares handed Unrivaled Belle three of her four losses last year, though Unrivaled Belle beat both Life At Ten and Malibu Prayer when it mattered most in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic last Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.

Saturday, when Unrivaled Belle makes her 5-year-old debut in the Grade 3, $150,000 Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream Park, it will once again be a Pletcher-trained filly who looms the biggest obstacle.

Awesome Maria, a dominant winner of the Grade 3 Sabin Stakes here on Feb. 19, looms the horse to beat in the Rampart, one of two graded stakes on a 12-race card at Gulfstream Park. The Rampart, run at 1 1/8 miles, shares the bill with the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks.

As a 2-year-old, when in the barn of Stanley Hough, Awesome Maria won the Grade 2 Matron and was beaten a head by the Pletcher-trained Devil May Care in the Grade 1 Frizette. Awesome Maria was transferred to Pletcher prior to her 3-year-old season, but she only won once in four starts, that win coming on the grass.

Pletcher said he noticed a different filly when he brought Awesome Maria to Palm Meadows for the winter and she ran the best race of her career, winning the Sabin by nearly five lengths while running a mile in 1:36.38 and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 102.

“I thought her last one was definitely her best performance she’s had for us,’’ said Pletcher, who trains Awesome Maria for Joyce Robsham. “For whatever reason, when we got down here she started training like a different filly. She was very, very impressive in all of her works. We hadn’t seen that prior to coming down here. Even though she was running well we kept expecting – based on her form as a 2-year-old – more than what we were seeing in the morning. For whatever reason getting down here kind of changed that.’’

Awesome Maria, a daughter of Maria’s Mon, has yet to win around two turns on dirt.

“I don’t think it’s a problem,’’ Pletcher said. “The way she finished in the Sabin and the way she galloped out. She’s bred to get the distance and has been training down her like she’ll get it no problem.’’

Unrivaled Belle won the Rampart last year, but did so after running fourth in the La Canada over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface. This year, Unrivaled Belle comes into the Rampart having not raced since in 148 days.

“I think she’s ready for a race, I don’t think she’s cranked and ready for her best effort by any means,’’ said trainer Bill Mott, who is using this race as a prep for the Grade 2, $300,000 La Troienne at Churchill Downs on May 6. “Some of these horses, they [need] a race down here.’’

On paper, it would seem like a tall order for any of the other five runners in here to pull off an upset. Successful Song comes off a second-place finish in an optional claiming race going 1 1/8 miles here on March 11. She also won the off-the-turf Judy’s Red Shoes at Sakes at Calder last September.

Persuading has finished second or third in a trio of graded turf stakes here this winter, and did win an off the-turf allowance race at Churchill last fall.

Dubai Dancer, Stephanie Got Even, and Joanie’s Catch complete the field.