Updated on 09/17/2011 11:51AM

New star's bandwagon growing

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Four Footed Fotos
Ipi Tombe's next two races are scheduled to be the Diana Handicap at Saratoga, followed by either the Beverly D. or Arlington Million. Each of these races carries Grade 1 status.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Churchill Downs faithful treated Ipi Tombe as if she were one of their longtime favorites. Yet it seems far more likely that the extraordinarily loud cheers that met Ipi Tombe as she returned to the winner's circle Saturday following the Locust Grove Handicap were the acknowledgements of her status as a global superstar, one whose mere presence was deeply appreciated.

If fans reacted so enthusiastically after she won a Grade 3, the outpouring of sentiment that might greet Ipi Tombe the next two times she races figures to be considerably greater. Her next two races are scheduled to be the Diana Handicap July 26, the first Saturday of the Saratoga meet, followed by either the Beverly D. or Arlington Million Aug. 16 at Arlington Park. Each of those races carries Grade 1 status and would be run before huge, festive crowds.

"I'm sure she'll get a lot of publicity as the Saratoga meet approaches," said New York Racing Association spokesman Fran LaBelle. "I'd bet fans will attach themselves to her."

"It's going to be great for us," said Arlington spokesman Dan Leary. "There definitely will be a buzz when she shows up to run that day."

Such great anticipation is understandable. Not only is there widespread intrigue among racing fans about Ipi Tombe because of her exotic background (bred and formerly based in Zimbabwe), her proven superiority over male rivals (most notably in the Dubai Duty Free in March), and her sparkling career record (12 for 14), but her victory here Saturday only served to pique the interest about what she might be able to accomplish when allowed to run at full throttle. Despite what her half-length win margin suggests, Ipi Tombe was dominant in the Locust Grove, overcoming a sluggish start to win as jockey Pat Day pleased.

"This filly, there's something about her," said Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor syndicate owns a 25 percent interest in Ipi Tombe. "She's just incredible. She's not going to lose unless something weird happens."

Irwin said he was told that when Ipi Tombe was led off the backside and into the stable area following the Locust Grove, "People were lined up, clapping for her. I'm amazed that something like that could happen, especially considering this was her first race anywhere in this country."

Team Valor has owned 64 stakes winners since its formation 16 years ago, including Prized, Captain Bodgit, The Deputy, and Star of Cozzene. But Ipi Tombe, whom Irwin was highly instrumental in buying last August, might be in a class of her own. "We've never owned a horse like her - period," Irwin said.

Considering how her popularity could skyrocket in the coming months, Irwin said, "We're the custodians. It's a great feeling, but it also really adds to our responsibilities."

Trainer Elliott Walden said he doesn't necessarily mind shouldering that huge burden.

"Obviously you want to win and you want to do well, and there's some sense of added pressure with that," Walden said. "But I've said all along that I'd rather have pressure with her than pressure without her. Looking down the shed row and seeing a bunch of bad horses is pressure."

Although WinStar Farm owns 50 percent of Ipi Tombe (the original Zimbabwe syndicate that owned her, Sunmark Partners, has retained a 25 percent interest), it was the familiar green-with-red Team Valor silks that the mare carried to victory here Saturday. Irwin said WinStar principals Bill Casner and Ken Troutt told him that Ipi Tombe can usually carry the Team Valor silks, with one upcoming exception likely to be the Diana.

"They appreciate the fact that I brought the horse to them, and they know we're in business and having our silks [prominently displayed] is important," Irwin said.

Walden plans to send a string of about 25 horses, including Ipi Tombe, to Saratoga about a week before the meet starts July 23.