Trainer Jeremiah Englehart could be accused of understatement when he declared his filly Ria Antonia "moves different than the average horse."
The 3-year-old has the fluidity of a dressage prospect with size that could dwarf male rivals. Hers is a presence that commands respect, which makes it ironic that the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner comes into her season debut fighting for exactly that.
When the morning-line odds for Saturday's Grade III, $200,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds were released, Ria Antonia came in as the 9-2 fourth choice in the seven-horse field.
That is not a total slap in the face as the 11⁄16-mile Rachel Alexandra came up wildly tough with fellow Grade I winner Streaming and Grade II victor Untapable among the contenders. Still, it speaks to the general sense that Ria Antonia still has some convincing to do.
Her Breeders' Cup victory at Santa Anita last November was awarded via disqualification when stewards ruled that Grade I winner She's a Tiger, who crossed the wire a nose in front, had interfered with a rallying Ria Antonia in the stretch. She's a Tiger ended up winning the war, however, as she earned the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old filly with 212 first-place votes.
The only time Ria Antonia has hit the finish line first in her five career starts came when she broke her maiden by 6 lengths at Woodbine last July.
While her doubters have their case, Englehart along with owners Loooch Racing Stables and Christopher Dunn believe a counter argument is in the making.
"A lot of people doubt her because she only really has the one win, and it was by a disqualification," Englehart said during a teleconference this week. "However, if you just look at her two dirt starts — in the Frizette and she ran fifth, got beat 6 lengths and then come back and win the Breeders' Cup — you'd say she's a pretty nice filly. I just think she's a dirt filly, and ... we made a goal for her third start off the layoff to be that first Saturday in May (Kentucky Derby) or that Friday in May (Kentucky Oaks)."
Ria Antonia's enthusiastic team is keeping on the table a start against males on the Kentucky Derby trail, though Englehart said "she would still have to wow me a little bit" for that to happen.
The bay filly has faced males before, running fourth in Woodbine's Swynford Stakes last August behind eventual Holy Bull Stakes runner-up Conquest Titan. And while those long strides that swallowed up ground in the Breeders' Cup take some time to get going, the body they carry is still growing into its full effectiveness.
"I feel like her best races are down the road," Englehart said. "Everyone who watches her train has raved about her at Fair Grounds. She's just got that long, beautiful stride to her. Even in her gallop, I mean she just covers so much ground. So, yes, I think she's going to get much better than where she is right now."
Streaming's billing as the 5-2 choice on the morning line and Ria Antonia's main challenger is deserving. Streaming won the Grade I Hollywood Starlet last December in her second career start and already has one start under her belt in 2014, a runner-up finish in the Grade I Las Virgenes on Feb. 1.
Ria Antonia's preparation for her 3-year-old debut has been compromised because Fair Grounds canceled training on a handful of days because of inclement weather.
Her last breeze, a bullet 4-furlong move in 47 seconds Feb. 16, was a leap forward according to her trainer, though he cautioned that the Ria Antonia going postward Saturday isn't even her best self yet.
"There's some nice fillies in there, but, I don't know if she's 100 percent game ready," Englehart said. "But I think she's going to give a good effort on Saturday, and we'll see what happens. I think from this race on Saturday to where she jumps forward to in her next start, that's the most important thing."