01/15/2010 12:00AM

Stardom Bound gets a test of will

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PHOENIX - It's hard to believe you can win two Grade 1's in a year and have that year considered a failure. But that's what happened to Stardom Bound in 2009.

Expectations were through the roof. Her monstrous 2-year-old season of 2008, which resulted in an Eclipse Award, had her being mentioned as possibly good enough to try the boys in the Kentucky Derby. It was Stardom Bound, not Rachel Alexandra, who at this time last year was the glamour girl of the division.

My, how things have changed. A year later, she's seemingly little more than an afterthought.

Stardom Bound hits a fork in the road in Sunday's Grade 2 El Encino at Santa Anita. She's back to the synthetic track she adores and facing 4-year-olds only, so it's a great time to find out if she has enough gas in the tank to be a force in the filly-mare division. If she doesn't, the El Encino could be her swan song.

Maybe her maternal instinct is taking over, telling her connections it's time to be a mommy, not a warrior. That's what is on the line for her come Sunday.

Brilliant at 2, with three straight Grade 1 victories culminating in a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, she never showed the same fire at 3. She posted a workmanlike win in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes. Then came a desperate nose decision in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. That effort, in retrospect, may have been a sign that she hadn't come back as good as she had been, or had not progressed from age 2 to 3.

The late, great Bobby Frankel, her trainer for those two Grade 1 wins last year, was quick to pooh-pooh the notion of taking on the boys in the Derby.

Things went south for Stardom Bound after her Oaks victory. She failed to threaten while finishing third in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland, which was run on a Polytrack surface like the one she won the Del Mar Debutante on at 2. She was put away after that race, with hind-end issues cited.

The layoff seemed to do her a world of good. Reports of her workouts for her return were glowing; trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. sounded downright giddy. He said he couldn't wait to get her back to the races, even toying with the idea of trying to make the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic if things progressed ideally.

He opted for patience, however, and she continued to work well. Dutrow found his spot - the Grade 1 Gazelle at Aqueduct on Nov. 28. It looked like the perfect spot for a comeback. The biggest and the baddest of her division were already either resting or had just run in the Breeders' Cup and weren't coming.

So much for the best-laid plans. She broke awkwardly, but that shouldn't have mattered - she was going to take back anyway. What did matter were three things - her seeming discomfort taking the kickback in her face in her first try on dirt, that she spun her wheels on footing she may simply not have cared for, and she seemed to lack interest when asked to go on with it. Stardom Bound finished fifth, beaten 7 1/2 lengths.

When fillies or mares are ready to be mommies, they make it known. Lady's Secret, one of the great racemares of all time, suddenly didn't even want to race, blowing turns and showing no interest. It's happened with others, too. The competitive edge leaves.

That's what's on the table for Stardom Bound come Sunday. Like the Gazelle, it looks like a great spot - it's for her age group only and on a track she adores. No doubt the talent is still there. The question now is whether the will is as well.