07/29/2010 1:31PM

Sheppard keeps faith in Forever Together heading into Diana

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Forever Together has lost five straight starts since successfully defending her title in the 2009 Diana. That has led many observers to suggest she might not be the horse she was during her Eclipse Award-winning 2008 campaign or even last year when she banked nearly $800,000 and concluded the season by finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

But trainer Jonathan Sheppard begs to disagree with that theory and expects Forever Together to produce another top performance when she goes for a three-peat in Saturday’s $500,000 Diana at Saratoga. The Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile turf stakes for fillies and mares drew a field of seven, including three time Grade 1 winner Proviso.

Forever Together has started twice since finishing third as the 2-1 choice in the 2009 BC Fillies and Mare Turf, rallying to be a close second in both the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland and most recently the Grade 1 Gamely at Hollywood Park.

“Everyone is looking to say she’s not as good as she was but I think she’s still at the top of her game,” Sheppard said. “There’s a lot of luck involved when finishes are as close as her last two races, the luck of the draw, the luck of the running, the luck of the pace. She sat off slow fractions set by the eventual winners in both of her starts this year and she still closed willingly both times. This is a small but very select field and I wouldn’t change places with anybody in there.”

Julien Leparoux, who has guided Forever Together to each of her last two Diana victories but was not aboard her in the Gamely, will be back in his regular seat on Saturday.

Proviso stalked a less than swift pace before outlasting Phola by a half-length to post a well deserved half-length decision in the Just a Game at Belmont on June 5. He impressive r é sum é also includes a victory over males in the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Handicap earlier this year and a first-place finish in the Grade 1 Spinster last fall at Keeneland, where she was disqualified and placed second. The Diana will mark her first start at Saratoga.

“She’s doing well and I’d like to see a good pace on Saturday,” said Bill Mott, who trains the homebred Proviso for Juddmonte Farms. “A faster pace certainly won’t hurt us.”

Proviso will carry high weight of 123 pounds, including regular rider Mike Smith, under the allowance conditions of the Diana.

Trainer Todd Pletcher is also looking for a little help with the pace when he sends out Phola for a rematch with Proviso. Phola rallied from last following a slow start to miss just a half-length while making her Grade 1 debut in the Just a Game.

“I thought she ran great last time,” said Pletcher. “She came from far back and was able to close ground off a slow pace but couldn’t quite get there. Perhaps things will be different with a little more honest pace and a little more distance.”

My Princess Jess also made up some ground after being restrained off the pace in the Just a Game before finishing third, another neck behind Proviso. My Princess Jess was fifth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Forever Together, in the 2009 Diana.

Maram, winner of the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, registered her first victory since taking a minor stakes here last August when she overcame a near-disastrous trip to capture Monmouth Park’s Ms Liberty Stakes on July 4. The outing was just her second since her sixth-place finish in the 2009 BC Filly and Mare Turf.

Shared Account and Dynaslew, first and second in the Grade 3 All Along at Colonial, complete the lineup.