Updated on 09/15/2011 1:31PM

Top-grade field gathers for Prioress

Harold Roth/Horsephotos
Xtra Heat winning the Stonerside Beaumont at Keeneland.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Prioress, long thought of as simply a prep for the more prestigious Test Stakes, can now stand on its own as a race of major significance. Last fall, the North American Graded Stakes Committee saw fit to bump the Prioress to a Grade 1 beginning with Wednesday's 54th running at Belmont Park.

An exceptional field was assembled for the $200,000 Prioress, a six-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies, which highlights a 10-race Fourth of July card that also includes the $150,000 Tom Fool Handicap and the $100,000 Poker Handicap.

The seven 3-year-old fillies entered for the Prioress have combined to win 32 of 42 starts, including 18 stakes. Oddly, the only Grade 1 winner in the field, Stormy Pick, enters the race in the weakest form, having lost her last four starts.

Xtra Heat is responsible for 12 of the field's 18 stakes wins - although she has never won a Grade 1 - and looks to avenge her only loss sprinting when she takes on Cat Chat. Cat Chat caught Xtra Heat in the final jump of the Grade 2 Nassau County Stakes here on May 9. That race was at seven furlongs and the Prioress is at six, a distance at which Xtra Heat is 6 for 6.

Cat Chat defeated Xtra Heat in the Nassau County while in receipt of seven pounds. Wednesday, they will carry equal weight at 121, spotting three to five pounds to the others.

"If she's going to win a Grade 1, this would be her best chance, because it is three-quarters and she has run over that racetrack," trainer John Salzman said. "They're all nice horses in there and I'm not saying we're going to win but it's her best chance."

The majority of the field looks like it wants to run on or close to the lead. Salzman points out that when Xtra Heat defeated Gold Mover here in the Grade 2 Astarita Stakes last fall, she sat just off the pace.

"At one time she was fourth," Salzman said. "It's just that the races she's run in lately, she's been on the lead. If somebody wants to outrun her, she'll rate."

Among the contenders to make the pace are Above Perfection, an unbeaten California-bred who ships in for trainer Darrell Vienna, and Harmony Lodge, a fleet filly who comes in off a nine-length romp in the Little Silver Sakes at Monmouth Park.

"They're going to have to be smoking to be in front of her," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has always been high on Harmony Lodge. "She showed last year, as a 2-year-old, that she's got a lot of ability. Her last two races have been very impressive."

Cat Chat, a regally bred daughter of Storm Cat, was able to rate in the Nassau County, a race that kept her unbeaten in three starts. After recovering from a bruised foot that kept her out of the Acorn, Cat Chat drops back in distance.

"I think seven-eighths probably a little better for her," said trainer Alan Goldberg, who is 5 for 7 at the Belmont meet and winning races at a 36 percent clip nationally for the year. "Since we missed the Acorn, that screwed the long-distance plans."

Both Salzman and Goldberg singled out Shooting Party as a horse they fear. Trained by Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, Shooting Party finished a troubled third in the Acorn and then came back to win a seven-furlong allowance race by 4 1/2 lengths in her next start.

Astrapi, an unbeaten New York-bred, makes her first start since last December. She flashed signs of brilliance while never really being put to a drive as a 2-year-old. Despite the seven-month layoff, trainer Bob Klesaris expects a big effort.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see her win, it wouldn't surprise me to see her fifth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths," Klesaris said. "She'll show up, I'll tell you that."