03/31/2009 11:00PM

Reigning filly hasn't abdicated yet

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - It often happens that the best horse at 2 is no longer the best at 3. So when Stardom Bound was all out to win a four-horse photo in her last race, the Santa Anita Oaks, there was the predictable dialogue about how the rest of the class had caught up, how the filly had not progressed from one season to the next, how the end of her reign as a divisional champion was at hand.

Rick Dutrow, the new trainer of Stardom Bound, doesn't want to believe those things. Can't believe them. Won't believe them.

"I mean, she's won five Grade 1's in a row," said Dutrow. "How can you argue with that?"

A sixth straight Grade 1 race is on tap for Stardom Bound in the form of the $400,000 Ashland Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland. While based in Southern California with trainer Chris Paasch, Stardom Bound ended her 2-year-old season with resounding victories in the Del Mar Debutante, Oak Leaf Stakes, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Purchased for $5.7 million by a partnership headed by IEAH Stables and switched into the barn of Bobby Frankel, the filly began her 3-year-old season with wins in the Feb. 7 Las Virgenes and March 7 Santa Anita Oaks.

The new ownership had planned all along to eventually turn over the filly to Dutrow, who last year won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown for the deep-pocketed syndicate. While Dutrow has stayed mostly in south Florida since Stardom Bound was flown from California to Lexington on March 18, he was here Sunday when the filly had her final workout toward the Ashland. She went six furlongs in a quick 1:12.60 over the Polytrack.

"After I watched her gallop and after she breezed by me, I couldn't be happier," he said. "Going by me, she looked great. Perfect. We're going into the Ashland in great shape, and I think she'll be really, really tough."

Dutrow, who planned to return to Lexington no later than Thursday after spending the few interim days in Florida, said the May 1 Kentucky Oaks will follow the Ashland.

"We've got to get past the Ashland first," he said. "Then we can start thinking about the Oaks."

Four years ago, Dutrow hit the first end of that double when Sis City captured the Ashland by a whopping 10 1/2 lengths over what was then a speed-biased dirt track at Keeneland. Four weeks later at Churchill Downs, Sis City was fourth as the 3-5 Oaks favorite. Obviously Dutrow is looking to avoid any such similar patterns.

Stardom Bound, he said, "really seems to love the racetrack at Keeneland. After the Ashland, that's when we can start talking about how she might handle the dirt, although I really don't see any reason why she wouldn't."

Stardom Bound, by Tapit, has never raced on anything but a synthetic surface, having run three times at Del Mar, then four times at Santa Anita. Dutrow said her breeding - she is by Tapit (by Pulpit) out of a mare whose sire, Tarr Road, is by Grey Dawn II - "really doesn't have much grass to it, so I'm thinking she's going to love the dirt."

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has been aboard Stardom Bound in all seven career starts, and although Smith came under criticism for being excessively wide in the Santa Anita Oaks, Dutrow said there is "absolutely no thought" being given to replacing Smith.

"Mike said down the backside he kept getting pushed out farther and farther, and next thing he knew he was out in the middle of the track," said Dutrow. "I'm sure he wasn't happy with how it all worked out, but sometimes those things happen - and he did end up winning. Mike and the filly get along really well together, and nobody in our group is even talking about splitting them up."

In the Ashland, Stardom Bound will face the other three fillies in the Santa Anita Oaks photo - Third Dawn, Hooh Why, and Nan - as well as Dream Empress, whose best race came when she won the Grade 1 Alcibiades last fall over the Keeneland Polytrack. Clearly the race shapes up as another legitimate test for Stardom Bound, as well as a critical prep for the Kentucky Oaks.

"She's just going to have to show up and run her race, that's all," said Dutrow. "From what I've seen of her, I'm very confident that if she does that, we'll be just fine."