02/06/2007 12:00AM

'Romance' still has something to prove

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There are reasons not to like Romance Is Diane when she runs Saturday in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita - her dirt races are slow; her only reasonably fast race was on Cushion Track.

So is Romance Is Diane a good filly or is she just lucky? Three straight wins will not satisfy skeptics, and why should they? Romance Is Diane earned ordinary Beyer Figures of 72 and 73 in a maiden race and the California Cup Juvenile Fillies, then improved to 85 when she switched to Cushion Track and won the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet.

"It wasn't the Cushion Track," trainer Mike Mitchell insists. "She's a good filly."

If Mitchell is right, Romance Is Diane may start as a tremendous overlay Saturday in the one-mile Las Virgenes. It would not be the first time. Romance is Diane was 16-1 in her maiden win, 5-1 in the Cal Cup, and 14-1 in the Starlet.

A competitive field is expected for the Las Virgenes, including graded stakes winners Cash Included, Baroness Thatcher, and Jump On In. Along with stakes winners Swiss Diva, Runaway Rosie, Quick Little Miss, and the promising A.P. Indy filly Rags to Riches, the Las Virgenes has something for everyone.

The only thing Romance Is Diane lacks is a fast race on dirt.

"I don't think [Cushion Track] was the key," Mitchell said. "She's by In Excess, and they do everything; they're just racehorses. As far as surfaces, she'll do anything."

The surface-switch dilemma has dogged handicappers the first month of the Santa Anita winter meet, where the majority of the main-track fields have been made up of horses whose last start was on Cushion Track. But with few exceptions (such as El Encino favorite Cantabria), Hollywood synthetic form has held up on the Santa Anita dirt.

Las Virgenes probable Baroness Thatcher is one example. Her only fast race from four starts had been on Polytrack at Keeneland. She switched to dirt Jan. 6 for the Gradeo3 Santa Ysabel and won with a career-best 91 Beyer. Three fillies Baroness Thatcher beat (Mistical Plan, Seaside Affair, and Adoradora) returned to win. Baroness Thatcher enters the Las Virgenes as a legitimate contender.

Romance Is Diane's Starlet win on Cushion Track also has been validated on Santa Anita dirt. Runner-up Quick Little Miss returned to finish second in the Santa Ynez; 10th-place finisher Runway Rosie came back to finish second in the Santa Ysabel. Even the older horses have maintained form moving from synthetic to dirt. Ball Four raced mostly on synthetic and grass before switching to dirt Sunday in the San Antonio. He ran one of the best races of the meet by an older dirt horse to finish second.

As for Romance Is Diane's chances to win the Las Virgenes, Mitchell is supremely confident. When owner Senji Nishimura called from Japan to see if the race was worth making the trip for, Mitchell told him to book the flight.

"I could have [downplayed her chances], and it would have been less pressure," Mitchell said, "but I couldn't ask for anything better than how she's coming up to the race."

The 85 Beyer that Romance Is Diane earned actually does little justice to her Starlet win. Positioned only 3 1/2 lengths behind a wicked half-mile in 45.47 seconds, she rallied to within 1 1/2 lengths after six furlongs in 1:10.30. From there, she might have quit. But she opened up two lengths in midstretch, and won by a length.

Not only did Romance Is Diane win, she was the only front-runner to stick around. The two-three-four finishers rallied from 10-12-9 running positions. The Starlet was her first start in seven weeks; she enters the Las Virgenes off a similar layoff.

"I think she does well with time between starts; I think she's getting better," Mitchell said. "David [Flores] has been working her, and he loves her. We have the Kentucky Oaks as the plan; we're going to see if she's that good."

Swiss Diva steps up, stretches out

Romance Is Diane is not the only California-bred that will enter the Starlet with a three-race win streak. Swiss Diva is stretching out from a romping win in the seven-furlong California Breeders' Stakes in which she earned a 95 Beyer.

"I know it was Cal-breds, and it might have been an illusion, but she won pretty well," trainer Paddy Gallagher said. "[The Las Virgenes] is a big step up, but we've wanted to see if she'll run two turns."

Agapito Delgadillo worked Swiss Diva six furlongs last week and will ride her again.