10/25/2007 11:00PM

Izarra aims to catch Indian Blessing

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. – By the time Breeders' Cup Day is over, the Juvenile Fillies usually is long forgotten, overshadowed partly because of its early placement on the Saturday program and by the relative unfamiliarity that fans have with its young participants.

This is not to diminish the importance of the Juvenile Fillies. It is, after all, a prelude to what often unfolds the following spring in the more glamorous 3-year-old filly division, and it goes without saying that horsemen also don't mind the paydays the $2 million purse yields.

So when the 24th Breeders' Cup program kicks off at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Saturday with the Juvenile Fillies at Monmouth Park, it will be with the usual sense of anticipation – not to mention a mild sense of confusion. In a season during which synthetic surfaces have become increasingly prevalent in North America, nearly half the field of 13 has never raced on dirt, making for some wild guessing about how to gauge the form of some potential key players.

Indian Blessing, whose two races have come over conventional dirt surfaces in New York, is a lukewarm morning-line choice, but several of the secondary favorites hail from the synthetic haven that Southern California has become. Izarra, a just-miss second in the Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita, and Set Play, one of three Grade 1 winners in the field, are among a West Coast contingent that figures prominently, if only their form on synthetics transfers over.

But Indian Blessing is strictly the one to catch. Following a sensational debut at Saratoga, the Indian Charlie filly returned with a dominating victory in the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont Park, answering any lingering questions about speed, if not stamina.

"That's the one thing nobody ever knows, whether they can carry that speed around two turns," said Bob Baffert, who trains Indian Blessing for owner-breeder Hal Earnhardt. "I think this filly can, but obviously she's got to prove it first."

Baffert also is the trainer of Cry and Catch Me, the Oak Leaf winner who was scratched from this race Wednesday morning with a fever.

Izarra closed so stoutly in finishing second by a nose in the Oak Leaf that trainer Ron McAnally believes the filly will give him the fourth Breeders' Cup victory of his career, following Distaff wins by Bayakoa (1989-90) and Paseana (1992).

"I think she'll win this race," McAnally flatly predicted.

In just three starts, Izarra already has a strong pattern of rallying from well back, so a fast pace in the 1 1/16-mile race likely would help her kick. Whether anything can apply sustained early pressure on Indian Blessing remains to be seen, but clearly there are many fast fillies in the field.

One of those is Proud Spell, a Brereton Jones homebred who is unbeaten in three starts. Based at Delaware Park with Larry Jones (no relation), Proud Spell shipped to New York to easily win the Grade 2 Matron in mid-September and has trained sharply since then. Although Proud Spell never has raced beyond seven furlongs, her trainer believes she is quite capable of handling more ground.

"This filly has really shown me a lot," Larry Jones said.

The respective two-three finishers in the Grade 1 Alcibiades, A to the Croft and Grace Anatomy, both ran extremely well that day at Keeneland, and their respective trainers, Ken McPeek and Doug O'Neill, are approaching this with optimism. Although Grace Anatomy has raced exclusively on Polytrack, "as long as she has a safe trip, it doesn't matter what she's running on," said O'Neill, who trains the Aldebaran filly for a partnership that includes baseball star Paul LoDuca.

Set Play, winner of the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante for trainer Peter Miller, will be trying to rebound off a seventh-place finish in the Oak Leaf. Likewise, Irish Smoke, a runaway winner of the Grade 1 Spinaway, will be out to prove her last-place finish in the Alcibiades on Polytrack also was an aberration.

As for borderline contenders, Tasha's Miracle has been consistent, if not spectacular, in four starts in California for trainer John Sadler, while Backseat Rhythm will be trying to find 4 1/2 lengths, her margin of defeat when second to Indian Blessing in the Frizette. The Indian Blessing camp "was happy the finish line was there," said Pat Reynolds, trainer of Backseat Rhythm.

The field is completed by longshots Phantom Income, Clearly Foxy, Smarty Deb, and Zee Zee.

The Juvenile Fillies is carded as the fourth race Saturday.