04/30/2014 9:37AM

Hovdey: Stevens not overselling Fashion Plate

Benoit & Associates
Gary Stevens aboard Fashion Plate following her victory in the Santa Anita Oaks.

The book on Gary Stevens is that he tends to like every horse he’s ever ridden, describing some of them as champions in the making while others brush perilously close to being nothing less than the second coming of Man o’ War.

This could be an occupational hazard. Riding horses like Gentlemen, Point Given, Serena’s Song, Beholder, Safely Kept, War Chant, Fantastic Light, Candy Ride, Singspiel, and Kentucky Derby winners Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, and Winning Colors can give a rider a warped sense of perspective.

Earlier this spring, in the space of about a week’s time, Stevens could be found aboard She’s a Tiger, Ria Antonia, and Fashion Plate in morning workouts at Santa Anita. West of Untapable, they were arguably the three best 3-year-old fillies in the land. Neither She’s a Tiger nor Ria Antonia had yet to begin the season, while Stevens had just won the Las Virgenes Stakes with Fashion Plate.

“It was the definition of a tough choice,” Stevens said. “The kind you like to have but hate to make.”

Stevens stuck with the girl what brung him and rode Fashion Plate to victory in the Santa Anita Oaks for trainer Simon Callaghan and owners Arnold and Ellen Zetcher and Michael Tabor. Ria Antonia finished second under Mike Smith, while She’s a Tiger passed the race to await a later date.

Now comes the $1 million Kentucky Oaks on Friday at Churchill Downs. Stevens and Fashion Plate are back, along with Untapable, Ria Antonia, My Miss Sophia, and Rosalind. She’s a Tiger, the division champ of 2013, will make her 2014 debut in the $175,000 Eight Belles Stakes earlier Friday, with Stevens aboard.

If the past is prologue, it takes a very good filly to put a Kentucky Oaks in the Stevens trophy case. He has won it only twice in 28 years – in 1986 with champion Tiffany Lass and in 1999 with champion and Hall of Famer Silverbulletday.

“I was coming back off my first bad knee injury in the fall of 1985,” Stevens said. “I was probably still two months away from a comeback when Laz Barrera called me up and insisted I get back to ride Tiffany Lass in a maiden race at Hollywood Park. ‘Even half-ready, you will want to ride her,’ he said. ‘She is something very special.’ ”

Stevens sucked it up and rode Tiffany Lass to a one-length maiden win on Christmas Eve of 1985. After winning her first four starts of 1986 under Ricky Frazier at Fair Grounds, Tiffany Lass was reunited with Stevens for victories in the Fantasy Stakes and the Kentucky Oaks.

In the spring of 1999, Stevens and Silverbulletday already were an item by the time they got to Louisville. They’d won all six of their collaborations, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs in 1998.

“She actually prepared me for Beholder, even those many years ago,” Stevens said of the two-time champion he rides for B. Wayne Hughes. “Like Beholder, Silverbulletday had sprinter speed and would go to the lead anytime you asked, so you had to be careful not to ask unless you meant it.”

Over the past four months, Fashion Plate has progressed in just three starts from a maiden sprint win to the brink of national celebrity. In fact, the daughter of Old Fashioned is the only North American Thoroughbred with two Grade 1 wins this year. Stevens confessed to being pleasantly surprised.

“When we won the Las Virgenes, it was tough,” he said. “She was breathing fire when the finish line arrived, in her first try around two turns. Then, coming back with time off in the Santa Anita Oaks, I thought we might be able to sneak off and get a mile and a sixteenth because of her class. But I told my agent I didn’t think I could pull her in a trailer going a mile and one-eighth in the Kentucky Oaks.”

They won by 1 1/4 lengths, on the lead. After the race, Stevens greeted his agent, Craig O’Bryan, with a simple: “I was wrong.”

“I’ve been watching Untapable in awe all spring,” Stevens said. “But she drew the 13 hole Friday, and I drew the 7. I like our 6-1 chances on the morning line.”

With Oaks Day now a not-so-mini version of Derby Day, the fillies in the big race are up against a wall of noise that can fry the coolest customer. Friday’s house will be in the neighborhood of 100,000, compared with the Santa Anita Oaks/Derby Day gathering of 35,241.

“My biggest worry is how my filly will handle the crowd,” Stevens said. “She’s a Winning Colors, Beholder type who can be temperamental. The best fillies always seem to have those little quirks, though. They’re not the type you can reprimand. You just go along for the ride and hope they get over their issues. Fashion Plate’s handled everything so far better than I thought she would. But it will be a whole different ballgame on Friday.”

Beyond the Oaks and the Eight Belles, the Stevens dance card for Derby Weekend includes Will Take Charge in the $300,000 Alysheba Stakes on Friday, then Global View in the $250,000 American Turf and Broadway Empire in the $400,000 Churchill Downs on Saturday. Stevens won’t be surprised if he wins them all. Pleased, but not surprised.

Then there’s Candy Boy in the Kentucky Derby, a colt last seen finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby. Stevens and Candy Boy took it to California Chrome early that day and paid the price. He figures the Kentucky Derby will be a different story.

“We got beat about nine lengths, and I can find six of those lengths,” Stevens said. “As for the other three, I might have to rely on California Chrome getting a bad trip.”