02/08/2007 1:00AM

Wide-open Las Virgenes could be anyone's


ARCADIA, Calif. - Whose turn is it to ride the merry-go-round on Saturday at Santa Anita? An inconsistent 3-year-old filly division moves up to Grade 1 class in a wide-open race that is the Las Virgenes Stakes.

Fame is fleeting in Southern California. Win today, gone tomorrow. Since summer, 11 unrestricted dirt stakes produced 11 different winners - Richwoman and Pinata (Hollywood Park); Untouched Talent and Point Ashley (Del Mar); Cash Included and Berriestoheaven (Oak Tree); Quick Little Miss, Runway Rosie, and Romance Is Diane (Hollywood fall); Jump On In and Baroness Thatcher (Santa Anita winter).

Six of those return Saturday in the one-mile Las Virgenes, and a simplistic approach is to back only those seeking their first open stakes win, including Cal Breeders' Stakes winner Swiss Diva or recent maiden winner Rags to Riches. Either way, the Las Virgenes shapes up as an attractive wagering race. It is not inconceivable that the favorite - whomever that is - could start as high as 4-1.

Here is a quick look at the Las Virgenes field, listed in post-position order.

Baroness Thatcher's Jan. 6 win in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel proved two things - she can run long and on something other than synthetic. The Santa Ysabel earned a solid 91 Beyer that was validated when the three-four-five finishers all returned to win. She is a contender.

Swiss Diva could wire the field, based on a blowout in the seven-furlong Cal Breeders'. She pressed solid fractions, and then ran away by more than eight with a huge 95 Beyer. She is 3 for 3, and has a legitimate chance in her first try around two turns.

Runway Rosie was blocked at the quarter pole of the Santa Ysabel, got clear too late, and finished well for second. An improving closer, she will have pace to run at, and has a chance from behind. One mile, however, might be too short. She wants farther.

Slew o' Platinum won a nondescript stakes at Turf Paradise. She could pick up the pieces.

Cash Included, winner of the Grade 1 Oak Leaf, has not raced since Nov. 4 when she broke slowly and finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Trainer Craig Dollase admits the Las Virgenes is not the main goal. She might need a start.

Jump On In is a sprinter who showed a new dimension Jan. 15 winning a seven-furlong Grade 2. Rated in fifth, she stormed home and romped. She did not relax early, however, is still learning how to harness her speed, and appears vulnerable stretching out.

Romance Is Diane has won all three routes; her Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet was better than the figure (85 Beyer). She pressed a hot pace, and was the only front-runner to stick around at the end. Freshened seven weeks, the versatile filly is the most likely winner.

Quick Little Miss is a solid, consistent filly whose nine starts make her the most seasoned in the lineup, and the easiest to assess. There is little doubt she is best as a late-running sprinter. She may pick up the pieces again, but is not a likely winner.

Rags to Riches parlayed an easy trip pushing slow fractions into a runaway maiden sprint win, but runner-up Iron Butterfly returned Feb. 2 to finish a bad fourth. Rags to Riches is bred long (A.P. Indy); trainer Michael McCarthy, a Todd Pletcher assistant, won the Grade 3 Sham last week with a colt coming off a maiden win. Contender, but stuck outside.

Somewhere in the Las Virgenes, there might be a filly capable of winning the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks. For now, the focus is only a mile. And who better to win the Las Virgenes than a sharp miler such as Romance Is Diane? She is versatile, working well for her comeback, is better than her last figure, and should start at 5-1 or higher.

Romance Is Diane has just one flaw. She won her last start. And how crazy is it to knock a filly for winning a race? The merry-go-round spins again Saturday, and for Romance Is Diane, the ride might not be over.

Ravel's big win mostly a mirage

It only took until February for starry-eyed fans to jump on the bandwagon of a purported superstar. Make no mistake - the improving 3-year-old colt Ravel might be the real deal. But it boggles the mind how he can be considered an early Derby favorite based on his Feb. 3 victory in a weakly run Grade 3.

This is no knock on Ravel. Facing winners after a Dec. 3 maiden win, Ravel did what he had to do in the 1o1/8-mile Sham Stakes. He won by a length with a good number (102 Beyer), and is headed the right way. But did anyone watch the race?

The pace was an absolute joke. The field was bunched through snail-like fractions of 48.08 seconds and 1:12.41, approximately one second slower than par. The Sham unfolded like a turf race; Ravel was perfectly positioned on the rail right behind the leaders. He swung out turning for home, kicked, and outran Liquidity. Good for Ravel.

The finishing kick would be meaningful if the race were on grass. But the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derby this year are on dirt. And the next time Ravel runs, he probably will chase legitimate fractions, not some phony pace set by outclassed Sunland Park shipper Song of Navarone, who was still in the hunt at the furlong pole of the Sham.

Who knows? In a truly run race, perhaps Ravel will sit farther back and deliver the same kick he did last weekend. But that is an assumption no sensible analyst should be willing to make at low odds. Closing fractions on dirt are far less relevant than the early pace.

Nonetheless, many are granting Ravel a free pass for a dirt race in which he went slow early and fast late. A more accurate gauge to his ability will come when Ravel runs next. Until then, his seemingly solid win in the Sham may be precisely that - a sham.