It wasn’t too long ago that Stardom Bound and Justwhistledixie were star 3-year-old fillies, each of them riding five-race win streaks and top Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) contenders. But setbacks cost both of them a chance at that race and though it’s only been 10 months since they scored their last victory, it seems much longer than that.
With fresh starts to the new season, Stardom Bound and Justwhistledixie will each try to get their 4-year-old campaigns off on the right foot, as they face each other and 11 other rivals in the $150,000 El Encino Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 17 at Santa Anita. The 1 1/16-mile contest will be held on the Pro-Ride surface and headlines the nine-race program.
Stardom Bound was a champion 2-year-old, winning three grade I events, including the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) while owned by the late Charles Cono and trained by Chris Pasch. After she was sold to IEAH Stables and partners for $5.7 million at the end of the year, the gray/roan daughter of Tapit picked up where she left up in 2009 by winning two more grade I races for interim trainer Bobby Frankel at Santa Anita.
But things have not gone well since her last victory on March 7. She ran third as the odds-on favorite in the Ashland (gr. I) for new trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., and missed the Oaks because of fatigue. After being given more than seven months off, Stardom Bound returned in the Nov. 28 Gazelle (gr. I) at Aqueduct and ran a well-beaten seventh.
But now she’s back at Santa Anita, where she is a perfect 4-for-4. She is in the care of Dutrow’s assistant, Michelle Nevin, and turned in a solid work on Jan. 13, going four furlongs in :48.20 in preparation for the El Encino. Mike Smith has the mount.
“We’re happy with way she’s coming into the race, but we were also happy going into the Gazelle,” said IEAH vice president Mike Sherack. “She had trained well at Aqueduct for Rick, and we’d thought she’d run big. It was disappointing, but we’re hopeful she’ll be happy to get back on a track she likes. She’s a champion racehorse and we’d like to see her get back to the head of the 4-year-old class.”
Though they would like to see her race a complete season, both Sherack and IEAH president Mike Iavarone have said that if Stardom Bound does not run well in the El Encino they might have to think about breeding her, likely to another of their champions, dual classic winner Big Brown.
Success for West Point Thoroughbreds and partners’ Justwhistledixie came a little later, as she broke her maiden late in her 2-year-old season and then followed up with four consecutive stakes wins that included the Davona Dale and Bonnie Miss (both gr. II at Gulfstream). The daughter of Dixie Union was the Oaks favorite in the early future pool wagering and was the morning line second choice but a foot abscess forced the connections to scratch her on the day of the race.
Justwhistledixie returned in June to run second in the Acorn (gr. I) at Belmont, and after another layoff returned to finish runner-up again, this time to Sara Louise in the Nov. 27 Top Flight Handicap (gr. II) at Aqueduct in her first start for new trainer Bill Mott.
With a record of 5-2-2 from nine starts, Justwhistledixie will make her first start on a synthetic surface. She posted one work over the Pro-Ride on Jan. 10, going five furlongs in 1:01.80. She will be ridden by Garrett Gomez.
“She has trained as good as ever in Florida (at Payson Park) and shipped to California on January 5th," West Point president Terry Finley said. "We think she will improve in her second start off the layoff. Bill Mott has liked this filly since the first day she arrived in his barn.
“It's a small partnership—Lewis Lakin, R. Dee Hubbard, and a few West Point Partners, including her breeder Carl Pollard—so we are truly excited about the upcoming 4-year-old campaign for this filly.”
Also in the field are a pair of fillies from the barn of Ken McPeek, who has a significant stable of horses in California for the first time. One is Best Lass, a stakes winner at Prairie Meadows who has a 4-3-0 record from 10 starts with earnings of $165,854.
The other is Dream Empress, a 4-year-old daughter of Bernstein who won the Darley Alcibiades (gr. I) and was a troubled second to Stardom Bound in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
“They’re coming up to the race great,” said Jordan Blair, who is supervising the operation for McPeek at Santa Anita. “Best Lass had a very sharp breeze last weekend. That was pretty impressive, because she did it without much urging.
“Dream Empress had a race over the track (Dec. 28, third in optional claimer) and that was off a layoff of eight months. She really wasn’t into the race very much until the end. Garrett (Gomez) got into her, and it was nice, but it wasn’t great, but we’re going to put a set of blinkers on for the El Encino to try and keep her more involved in the race. This is the big test. If she can’t handle this kind of company, they’re probably going to retire her and breed her.”
$150,000 El Encino (gr. II, Race 8, 4:07 p.m.), 4YO Fillies, 1 1/16 Miles (Pro-Ride) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Rose Diamond (IRE), J Talamo, 115, P L Biancone
2. Pretty Unusual (CA), C Sutherland, 119, B Abrams
3. Will O Way (KY), A Quinonez, 117, V Cerin
4. Dave's Revenge (KY), B Blanc, 115, R B Hess, Jr.
5. Eloquently (GB), D R Flores, 115, J W Sadler
6. Gumption (KY), J Valdivia Jr., 115, B Headley
7. Stardom Bound (KY), M E Smith, 122, R E Dutrow, Jr.
8. Dream Empress (KY), T Baze, 117, K G McPeek
9. Justwhistledixie (KY), G K Gomez, 122, W I Mott
10. Gilded Gem (KY), V Espinoza, 115, B Baffert
11. Spirit Seeker (KY), J Rosario, 115, J Hollendorfer
12. Best Lass (PA), A O Solis, 117, K G McPeek
13. Freedom Star (KY), M Garcia, 115, B Baffert