"You can see she's not grown much," trainer Olly Stevens called out Tuesday morning as his deft hands wrapped a set of white polo bandages around the restless legs of a bay filly anxious to depart Keeneland's quarantine barn.
Once Peace and War emerged to go to the track for the first time since returning to the scene of her top victory, the full effect of Stevens' words came to life. Indeed, the daughter of War Front still looks very much like the little dynamo who rallied from next to last in a 12-horse field to win the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland on Oct. 3.
The unknown for Peace and War is whether her outstanding form from that day remains as unchanged as her appearance. Sidelined by injury since that victory, the 3-year-old filly is set to make her return in Saturday's Grade I, $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes going 11⁄16 miles at Keeneland and potentially launch a bid to make the Kentucky Oaks.
"She's really training great," Stevens said. "Now it's a case of she's either good enough or she's not. We'll find out. But I'd like to think we have a shot."
It takes a special level of confidence to put in Grade I company a horse returning from injury after a six-month layoff. Even Peace and War suffered a slight tear of the XYZ ligament at the base of her fetlock a couple weeks after the Alcibiades, Stevens was undaunted that his charge could pull off the exceptional course he was plotting for the year ahead.
After all, Peace and War is the filly who became Stevens' first Grade I winner in just his second year training. He fell for her when owner Sheikh Fahad Al Thani purchased her for $300,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and she validated Stevens' ambitions after he suggested sending her stateside to the Alcibiades after back-to-back losses in England.
Stevens knew what he saw when Peace and War broke her maiden on her first time out, at Lingfield on May 27. As she tried dirt for the first time in the Alcibiades, the brave move by her connections became an astute one as she triumphed over a field that included eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and divisional champion Take Charge Brandi.
"I'm very lucky her owners are very sporting and let us take a shot," said the affable Stevens, who formerly worked as an assistant to Keeneland-based trainer Kellyn Gorder. "Most owners, if you've just broken your maiden and didn't win a graded stakes, the prospect of going to a Grade I ... most would say, 'You're mad.'
"I'm very lucky she's got an owner that is a sportsman. So (the Alcibiades win) was just vindication of a lot of things. We had a really bad summer last summer, didn't have good results. To have her bring it around like this was just phenomenal."
Despite having only her morning training to judge Peace and War by since then, Stevens remains steadfast in her development. He says her mind-set is better than it was heading into her Keene land outing in October.
"I breezed her with a horse who was second in two classics last year, and she blew right by him," he said. "I can't ask for more than that really."
Though Peace and War was made the tepid 3-1 favorite on the morning line, she is going to need a huge outing to topple her six challengers in the Ashland.
Having saddled two Kentucky Oaks winners, trainer Larry Jones knows about bringing along a top filly, and he sees some key intangibles in his Ashland entrant, Lovely Maria.
Her stablemate, multiple graded stakes winner I'm a Chatterbox, got the best of Lovely Maria in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds on Feb. 21. However, Lovely Maria finished second over the Keeneland surface going 61/2 furlongs in October and could be the lone speed in the Ashland.
"She has good tactical speed to put herself in a good spot, but she's not one of those who just has to have the lead," Jones said. "And it looks like the distance is going to suit her really good. The farther we've run her, the better she's been, so it looks like hopefully we have the right horse at the right time."
Siena Farm's homebred Angela Renee won the Grade I Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita Park in September but has gone winless in her past three starts, including a fourth-place finish in the Rachel Alexandra.
"Last time she broke pretty poorly and at the first call was 10, 12 lengths back," said David Pope, co-owner of Siena Farm. "She just can't make that up with her style, and I expect her to move forward off that. Hopefully we'll see a good result. But the favorite (Peace and War) ran awfully nice last October."