With Canada's 2006 Horse of the Year Arravale skipping the race due to an injury, a field of eight entered for Saturday's $300,000 Nassau Stakes (Can-II) for fillies and mares at Woodbine.
The first $300,000 race of the Woodbine season is slated for 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Trainer James Smith said Arravale's absence had a direct impact on the decision that landed potential upsetter Virginia Plain in the Nassau.
"That was a big factor in going into the race. You don't really want to run against those (types). It doesn't hurt that she's not there," said Smith, who is 2-for-20 with eight top-three finishes in 2007.
Owned by Sean and Dorothy Fitzhenry, three-time winner Virginia Plain is consistent on the E.P. Taylor Course, having compiled five on-the-board finishes from seven tries. Smith believes the daughter of Gulch is more mature and improved as a 5-year-old.
"She always been kind of high strung. She seems a lot more settled this year. Hopefully, she's turned the corner and runs a more honest race," said Smith.
For Smith, a 'more honest' race means a tactical trip from a few lengths off the pace as opposed to the nail-biting deep-stretch rallies of 2006.
On July 16, she closed 13 lengths to fall just three-quarters of a lengths shy of Kentucky invader Stella Blue. On Sep. 10, her stretch punch proved successful at edging Arosa Farms Murani, who went on to upset Noble Stella in the Flaming Page in her next start.
"At three and four, she was dropping out and having to make a pretty big run. She was always closing, but seemed to run out of real estate," said Smith.
If Virginia Plain's initial effort of 2007, the Nassau Prep, is any indication, then she has been able to adjust her running style. In the one-mile and 70-yard event, which was transferred from turf to Polytrack, Virginia Plain demonstrated an ability to track the front-runners and stay on for a major share of the purse.
"I thought she ran really well," he said. "She did lay a little closer to the pace last time out."
The bay Kentucky-bred finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Executive Flight, a 4-year-old filly who has won three of her past four.
With a strong second in her first start of 2007 on Polytrack, Smith has one reason to expect a top effort from Virginia Plain, who will be ridden by David Clark.
"She's a better horse on the grass than she is on the dirt or the Polytrack," said Smith. "Hopefully, she has made a bit of a jump."
A top-three finish in the Nassau is significant for the mare's owners because they own most of Virginia Plain's immediate family.
"The owner has the mare (Trishyde Slew), the full-brother and the half-sister," explained Smith. "He has the whole family. We're trying to get a little black type into this mare."
$300,000 Nassau Stakes (Can-II, Race 6, 3:35 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/6 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Virginia Plain (KY), 115, David Clark
2. Murani (KY), 117, Emile Ramsammy
3. Strike Softly (ON), 119, Todd Kabel
4. Be Envied (KY), 117, Patrick Husbands
5. Essential Edge (ON), 119, Emma-Jayne Wilson
6. May Night (FL), 115, Robert C. Landry
7. Fiery Dancer (KY), 115, Corey Fraser
8. Elle Runaway (KY), 115, Justin Stein