04/23/2013 12:38PM

Keeneland: Gathering steps up to graded stakes in Bewitch

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Gathering comes into the Bewitch off a powerful allowance win earlier in the Keeneland meeting.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Understated Englishman that he is, Jonathan Sheppard admitted to being “delighted” a couple of days after he sent out a filly named Gathering to win her North American debut on opening weekend of the Keeneland spring meet.

For a less-disciplined chap, a replay of the April 6 victory by Gathering would elicit something more along the lines of a “Wow!” or “Awesome!” or “Can you believe that?” Indeed, the manner in which Gathering stormed home in that first-level turf allowance – overcoming a horrible start to win going away, then galloping out far in front of her opposition – suggested the 4-year-old filly might well be a star in the making.

“The competition she faced was not that great,” said Sheppard, “but the way she won was encouraging.”

Less than three weeks later, Gathering will have her first opportunity to show how she stacks up against graded-stakes competition when she runs Thursday in the Grade 3, $150,000 Bewitch Stakes on the Keeneland turf. Rosie Napravnik, who rode the Augustin Stable homebred in that eye-catching triumph, will be back aboard when breaking from post 5 in a full field of 12 fillies and mares.

The Bewitch is run at 1 1/2 miles around three turns, and despite Gathering never having raced that far, her stateside bow was impressive enough for her to be listed as a lukewarm 3-1 morning-line favorite in the deep field assembled for the 52nd Bewitch.

Among the opposition is Kissable (post 2, Julien Leparoux), an Irish-bred mare who has shown flashes of brilliance for Roger Attfield; Scampering (post 8, Javier Castellano), a Shug McGaughey-trained filly who came to hand at Gulfstream Park this winter; Regalo Mia (post 9, Luis Contreras), winner of the Grade 3 Orchid at Gulfstream for Michelle Nihei in her most recent outing; and the Graham Motion trio of Qushchi (post 1, Edgar Prado), Strathnaver (post 11, Joel Rosario), and Angegreen (post 12, Joe Rocco Jr.).

Kissable, with benefit of 13 recorded workouts since mid-January, seems particularly dangerous with a best effort. Leparoux, who will be unseated by Rosario as the leading jockey in wins at this meet, nonetheless has enjoyed a sensational spring by leading with mount earnings of nearly $1.5 million. The 29-year-old Frenchman has won four graded stakes at the meet: the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley (Centre Court), Grade 1 Blue Grass (Java’s War), Grade 3 Lexington (Winning Cause), and Grade 3 Ben Ali (Successful Dan).

Motion said Tuesday that he expects to run all three of his Bewitch entrants. Strathnaver, a British-bred, already has been at Keeneland long enough to have two workouts, while Qushchi and Angegreen arrived Tuesday after an overnight trip from their winter base in south Florida.

“I’m not crazy about the posts for the two outside fillies,” said Motion. “But we’re very happy with the way they’re all coming up to this.”

The Bewitch, first run at the 1962 spring meet as a sprint stakes for 2-year-olds, has undergone a number of changes before settling into its current form in 1995. The 2012 winner was Upperline, with Jimmy Graham riding for trainer Mike Stidham.

The Bewitch occupies the usual race-eight feature slot on a nine-race Thursday card. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern, with the Bewitch set for 4:42.

The male counterpart to the Bewitch, the Grade 2 Elkhorn Stakes, helps close out the 16-day spring meet Friday. Churchill Downs kicks off its spring meet Saturday night.