10/04/2007 11:00PM

Spinster: Lady Joanne's final exam

EmailLEXINGTON, Ky. - When Lady Joanne ran off to a 6 1/2-length triumph during the infancy of Polytrack at Keeneland, no one could have known that the filly would return a year later in one of the most critical races of her career - and arguably the most critical steppingstone to the 24th Breeders' Cup Distaff.

The Juddmonte Spinster Stakes is the race that Lady Joanne will contest Sunday at Keeneland, and aside from taking her a step closer to the Breeders' Cup, the Spinster should help clarify which of the fillies and mares in the field should go forward.

"We're in that whole thing, too," said Carl Nafzger, who trains Lady Joanne (pronounced "Joanie") for owner-breeder Bentley Smith. "I mean, we've got to see where we belong before we think of anything else, including the Breeders' Cup."

Eleven fillies and mares are entered in the Grade 1, $500,000 Spinster, a 1 1/8-mile Polytrack race that goes as the ninth of 10 races. The winner will earn an automatic berth in the Distaff because the Spinster is a "Win and You're In" Challenge race. The Spinster is also part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge All Stakes Pick Four, along with three BC preps from the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet. The pick four carries a guaranteed pool of $500,000. All four races will be televised live on a two-hour ESPN2 broadcast that runs from 5 to 7 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Spinster is 5:15.

Lady Joanne will start from post 8 under Calvin Borel. She is one of three 3-year-olds in the field, along with Panty Raid and High Heels. Under scaleweight conditions, older horses carry 123 pounds, three more than the 3-year-olds.

Lady Joanne started her career with two Polytrack races, finishing third at Turfway Park in September 2006, then breaking loose at Keeneland with her maiden triumph last Oct. 11. Since then, she has not raced or trained on the synthetic surface, but she has done something else - she has blossomed into one of the top fillies in her division by virtue of four stakes victories, most notably her neck triumph in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in her latest start, Aug. 18.

"That race last fall, that makes me not too concerned about the Poly," said Nafzger. "The main reason I'm here is because it's good timing before the Breeders' Cup, and the Spinster itself is such a great race. I've always liked it."

Like Lady Joanne, Panty Raid has had brief but successful encounters with Polytrack, finishing second despite trouble in the Bourbonette Stakes at Turfway Park in the spring before winning a Keeneland allowance race. Panty Raid, winner of the Grade 1 American Oaks on turf in July, ran fifth behind Lady Joanne as the 2-1 favorite in her only subsequent race, the Alabama.

In all, 9 of the 11 Spinster starters are graded winners, with Asi Siempre, the defending Spinster champion, being closest to millionaire status with a $938,300 bankroll. Primarily a turf specialist in 2006, the gray mare instead has been raced mostly on dirt this year by trainer Patrick Biancone, and although Asi Siempre's recent form isn't particularly good - she was beaten nearly 20 lengths in the Delaware Handicap in her last start in July - she since has been regrouped with a series of sharp local works over the Polytrack and could be a factor Sunday.

Last year, Asi Siempre rolled to a 2 1/4-length score in the Spinster before finishing second - although subsequently disqualified to fourth - in the BC Distaff at Churchill Downs.

Other major contenders in a highly competitive Spinster include Teammate, a rare shipper out of New York for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens; Sugar Shake, winner of the Grade 1 Santa Maria in February; Naissance Royal, a turf specialist making an interesting transition to Polytrack for Christophe Clement; and High Heels, winner of the Fantasy in April and most recently a late-flying second in the Gardenia Handicap at Ellis Park.

"We're going against all the good ones, so this should tell us where we are with her," said Gary Hartlage, trainer of High Heels. "Whoever runs big here, they can go places. We're hoping we're one of them."