11/05/2009 12:00AM

A tougher lot threatens a Ventura repeat

Barbara D. Livingston
Ventura, at Santa Anita with assistant trainer Ruben Loza on Tuesday, won last year's Filly and Mare Sprint by four lengths but faces stiffer competition this year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Ventura and Informed Decision have met once, in April at Keeneland. Ventura lost by a head, and trainer Bobby Frankel was angry with the jockey.

"Bobby was a little upset with me that day," jockey Garrett Gomez said early this week, smiling at the memory.

"I moved too soon."

It is tough to ride a mare as quirky as Ventura, for a trainer as demanding as Frankel. But the rewards are big, and Friday at Santa Anita, Gomez and Ventura will try to win the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint a second straight year for Frankel.

Nine fillies and mares entered the seven-furlong sprint, race 7 on the nine-race card. And though Ventura dominated the 2008 edition when she blew past Indian Blessing and won by four lengths, things are different.

For starters, there is a hot new shooter. Informed Decision has won 10 of 13, has never lost on synthetic, and has enough speed to gain a tactical edge over Ventura, a deep closer.

Furthermore, the pace scenario is muddled. The only true front-runner is the seemingly outclassed Free Flying Soul.

Add the two Godolphin entries - Sara Louise, a rapidly improving 3-year-old, and Seventh Street, a multiple Grade 1 winner - and the 2009 Filly and Mare Sprint field is tougher than it was last year.

This year, it will be up to Frankel's longtime assistant Humberto Ascanio to give Gomez instructions. While Frankel battled illness through summer and fall, prerace strategizing and post-race analyses became infrequent and finally stopped.

Gomez said he has not spoken with Frankel in a while.

"Maybe Keeneland," he said, referring to the spring meeting.

Frankel has done his best work with imports such as Ventura. Her European form was only modest, but she improved after joining Frankel's stable. She came around quickly in winter 2008. The first time Gomez rode her, in an allowance turf sprint, Gomez said, "We're going to have some fun with this one."

Have they ever. Owned and bred by Juddmonte Farms, Ventura has won 6 of 11 in the U.S. She is 9 for 19 overall and is expected to retire after the Filly and Mare Sprint.

Three of her losses were by a head or less, and Gomez said he still believes she could have won them all, including the head defeat to Informed Decision in the Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland in April.

"What's weird about [Ventura] is she'll give you the one kick, and then she thinks it's done," Gomez said. "She's not a horse that will fight. She gives you that big acceleration, and once she does that, that's it."

So what is the secret?

"Time her run right," Gomez said.

Jonathan Sheppard trains Informed Decision, whose campaign one year ago included a romp in the Grade 2 Raven Run in mid-October at Keeneland. She could have taken on Ventura last fall in the Filly and Mare Sprint, but, Sheppard said, "I didn't think she quite had the seasoning."

George Strawbridge owns Informed Decision. He and Sheppard gave her the winter off and brought her back at 4.

"We didn't really quite know what we had," Sheppard said. "We thought we had something pretty good, but we weren't quite sure. Now we know, obviously."

So does everyone else. Informed Decision has won 5 of 6 this year, and last out she ran past the top California sprint filly Carlsbad in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America at Keeneland. The good news about Informed Decision is Strawbridge is not done with her.

"I'm guessing he'll run her another year," Sheppard said. "We're all getting a little longer in the tooth. We might as well enjoy ourselves."

Julien Leparoux rides Informed Decision, who has won races on synthetic surfaces at Keeneland, Arlington, and Presque Isle, and on dirt surfaces at Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, and Gulfstream Park. Informed Decision has won more than $1.2 million.

Based on speed figures, Sara Louise may be the horse to beat. Her triple-digit Beyer Figures, two-pound weight break - 3-year-olds carry 122 - and a favorable pace scenario should lead to a good trip sitting second behind the speed. Frankie Dettori rides Sara Louise, owned by Godolphin.

Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor also start Seventh Street, who outran perceived distance limitations all year, and won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom at 1 1/16 miles. She shortens to seven furlongs, possibly a more favorable distance for her.