09/02/2008 11:00PM

Stardom Bound finds herself

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Mike Smith had just nailed another precision strike on what must be the most efficient Del Mar season a jockey has enjoyed for years.

Going into Labor Day, Smith had won just 11 races at the meet, but four of them were attached to stakes events, including three of the best. Using a variety of techniques from his Hall of Fame repertoire, Smith already had won the $200,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap from start to finish with Dearest Trickski, the $400,000 Del Mar Derby from just off the pace with Madeo, and the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch from some other dimension aboard unbeaten Zenyatta.

Now he was back in his cubicle, late this past Monday afternoon, fresh from a sweeping, last-to-first piece of work in the $250,000 Del Mar Debutante aboard the Tapit filly Stardom Bound - a maiden no less - who beat a field that seemed full of promising 2-year-old talent.

"I can't really remember winning a Grade 1 race with a maiden before," Smith said, taking a quick inventory of his 26 years in the saddle. "But she shouldn't have been a maiden. We all know that. In fact, she probably should be 3 for 3."

Ah, youth. Stardom Bound, a leggy gray, gave away her first two races right at the break, losing a maiden event by a nose and then the Sorrento Stakes by a length. This caused considerable frustration among the families of owner Charles Cono and trainer Christopher Paasch, who had been convinced for some time that Stardom Bound was a filly of unusual ability. Smith concurred, but the lass had her own agenda.

"She does the darndest things leaving there," Smith said, illustrating the point with a display of twitches, squeaks, and other cartoon noises. "Man, you've really got to stay on her. Today, she did it again, but not near as bad."

After those earlier setbacks, Paasch and the Del Mar gate crew discovered that Stardom Bound suffered from a certain hypersensitivity.

"A lot of them you do have to work with their heads," Paasch said, referring to the psychological. "This filly, my God, I think she's one of the smartest horses I've ever trained. She's so relaxed about everything she does. But she has had a tendency to get her head down in the gate. It turned out if you took too much hold of her head, she didn't like it. So we just leave her alone."

Through the opening quarter of the seven-furlong Debutante, Smith and Stardom Bound pretty much left the rest of the field alone. They trailed the last horse by several lengths, a gray puff of smoke coming from the tailpipe of a half-mile split in 45.07 seconds.

"I didn't even feel like I was last, though," Smith said. "The way she was going, I felt like I was on the lead. She got into that rhythm where you think, 'Ooh, she's really gonna run today.' Around the turn I asked her to catch them, just a little, to get to where if I had to go inside I could, or go outside if I needed. I swung out and she caught 'em, just like that. Just like a baby Zenyatta."

Whoa there, Mikey. Let's not load Stardom Bound with that kind of pressure just yet. Certainly, her move down the middle of the stretch was impressive. And when she changed leads in the final furlong she opened up to win by 4 1/4 lengths. But using the "Z" word?

"The most impressive part was after the race," Smith went on, undaunted. "Galloping out, I was just getting into a jog when she started bucking and squealing. What kind of 2-year-old does that? I told her she was supposed to be exhausted. Everybody else was pulling up gasping. There she was playing."

The difference between the happy-go-lucky 2-year-old filly and her emotionally drained entourage was dramatic.

"This makes up for a tough year," Charles Cono said, beaming a wide smile, as he and his wife, Karen, made their way to the winner's circle.

At the age of 75, Charlie Cono long ago attained legendary status in the real estate world of San Diego, but neither the market nor his own health have been anything to brag about lately, and his racing stable of more than 30 horses has had a run of poor luck through most of 2008. Until now.

"Compared to owning racehorses, real estate is pretty easy," Cono said. "I guess I don't mind losing the little ones to win a big one like this."

Cono has had a certain amount of success with such stakes winners as Crowned Dancer, Diplomat Lady, Conveyor's Angel, Veiled Speed, and Hello Lucky, and he watched as his Mystery Girl finish second in the 2005 Del Mar Debutante to Wild Fit. Now, after more than 50 years in San Diego, Cono will see his colors painted on one of the iron jockeys standing watch over the Del Mar walking ring, with the promise of more to come from Stardom Bound, including a shot at the Breeders' Cup.

"We've had some good horses, but the way she was working, Chris said this could be the best filly we've had," Cono added. "She's just beautiful. And did you see the way she ran today, from way the hell in the back? Gives you a heart attack."

Or the thrill of a lifetime.