Starlight Stables and partners' Ashado is arguably the dominant older filly and mare in North America. The questions remaining are: Can she get any better? And, can anyone get close to her?
Those questions will be answered as Ashado attempts to add another stakes to her credentials by taking on six new challengers in Friday 58th edition of the $400,000 Personal Ensign Handicap (gr. I) for fillies and mares at 10 furlongs at Saratoga.Ashado reinforced her position as top older filly or mare in North America with a going-away 9 1/2-length victory - perhaps the best performance in her 18-race career - in the Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I) at the Spa nearly four weeks ago.After that race, trainer Todd Pletcher originally planned to skip the Personal Ensign and prepare for the Belmont Fall Championship Meet with the Ruffian Handicap (gr. I) Sept. 11 and the Beldame Stakes (gr. I) Oct. 1. Those races would set her up for the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), also at Belmont Park, Oct. 29.Pletcher reconsidered the Personal Ensign, however, once he realized the race would be conducive to the 4-year-old filly's schedule. "After we won the Go for Wand, Ashado's schedule wasn't really set in stone," he said. "Once we looked at the Personal Ensign, Ruffian, and Beldame, we thought coming back here in four weeks would be better, which would set up perfectly for the Beldame."Pletcher would like to see Ashado at least duplicate her Go for Wand performance, if not put in a better effort in the Personal Ensign. One of the factors in Ashado's improvement has been her workout regimen. Just before the Go for Wand, Ashado had been working in company with Flower Alley, who is third choice at 3-1 on the morning line for Saturday's 136th running of the Travers Stakes (gr. I)."She has been really well since that race," Pletcher said. "She looks good and has been training well. Hopefully, Ashado is going to live up to the way she has been running. We're hoping she puts in a similar effort to her Go for Wand win."Ashado is not the only champion Pletcher will enter into the Personal Ensign. Sumaya Us Stable's Isola Piu Bella, the 3-year-old Chilean filly, is looking to make an impact in the race.
Isola Piu Bella has won six stakes, including four group I victories in her native land. One of her better races came in the group 1 Chilean St. Leger against the males.After winning three straight races, Isola Piu Bella was sent to North America, but she didn't race for more than a year."She didn't come to us until around this time last year," Pletcher said. "She did need some time to get acclimated to the surroundings. Obviously, she's a talented filly and on her day, she can be good." Isola Piu Bella made her first North American start in the Banshee Breeze at Gulfstream Park, where she ran third. Pletcher brought Isola Piu Bella back a month later in the Sabin Handicap (gr. III), which she won by 2 1/2 lengths.Since then, Isola Piu Bella has won two other races - the Sixty Sails Handicap (gr. III) at Hawthorne Park and the Obeah Handicap, the prep race for the Delaware Handicap (gr. II). Her effort in the Delaware Handicap, however, was not her best. She finished eighth as the favorite."She really didn't behave well in the paddock and the gate that day," Pletcher said. "Once that happened, she didn't fire. She has been better since that race, but this is not going to be an easy task, especially with Ashado in the race."Along with Isola Piu Bella, the top three finishers of the Delaware Handicap will take a shot at Ashado: Island Sand, Two Trail Sioux, and Personal Legend.B.A. Man Stable's Island Sand, trained by Larry Jones, was once a contender for champion 3-year-old filly last year with a second-place finish to Ashado in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at Churchill Downs and a victory in Belmont's Acorn Stakes (gr. I).
Shortly after finishing third to Ashado in the Mother Goose, however, Island Sand required surgery for an entrapped epiglottis, which forced her away from racing for nearly four months.Once she went back to racing, Island Sand wasn't the same filly she was prior to the surgery. She went unplaced in two graded stakes.After Jones gave her another layoff, Island Sand was slow showing improvement this spring. She finished third in the Azeri Breeders' Cup (gr. III) and second in the Louisville Breeders' Cup (gr. II). Not only did Island Sand's race in the Delaware Handicap bring her back to the winner's circle after a year, she became Jones' first millionaire."It has taken a couple of races to get her back," Jones said. "I was really impressed with her race in the Delaware Handicap. That race itself proved she could handle the distance and win again. We know Ashado is clearly the top filly in the country, but we're going to give it another shot."Two Trail Sioux is expected to dictate the pace in the Personal Ensign. In 11 lifetime starts, Two Trail Sioux has taken advantage of her running style to win six races, including the Fleur de Lis (gr. II) at Churchill in June. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens replaces another Hall of Fame jockey - Pat Day, who recently retired - on Two Trail Sioux.Personal Legend will be looking for her second win of the year. The Bobby Frankel trainee who races for Edmund Gann won the Stage Door Betty at Calder Race Course in her 5-year-old debut.A Song in A Minor is hoping to keep owner Greg Norman perfect on the New York circuit. Since bringing a few horses from California in July and starting three times, Norman has not lost a race in New York. He will also take a shot at undefeated Lost in the Fog with unbeaten New York-bred The Daddy, a 12-length winner in an allowance race here at Saratoga, in Saturday's King's Bishop (gr. I).In her lone attempt in a graded stakes, A Song in A Minor stalked the pace, and then tired to finish sixth in the El Encino (gr. II) at Santa Anita. Since then, A Song in A Minor has won a second-level and third-level allowance race on the West Coast.Bill Farish's Shadow Cast is coming into the race off an unplaced effort in the Diana (gr. IT) at Saratoga. The biggest of her three stakes wins her 4-year-old season came in the Louisville Breeders' Cup.Personal Ensign Handicap
Post Horse Jockey Weight
1 Shadow Cast Robby Albarado 118
2 Two Trail Sioux Gary Stevens 118
3 Island Sand Jerry Bailey 118
4 Personal Legend Edgar Prado 116
5 Ashado John Velazquez 122
6 Isola Piu Bella (CHI) Ramon Dominguez 116
7 A Song in A Minor Jose Santos J A 116