If ever there was a time Stardom Bound was supposed to be vulnerable, her seasonal bow on Feb. 7 was it.
While the daughter of Tapit had been the picture of dominance in reeling off three straight Grade I wins to cement her championship juvenile campaign, recent years have been littered with precocious 2-year-olds that lost their edge while making the transition to their sophomore season.
Shortly after she broke from the gate in the Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes, however, Stardom Bound began putting her connections' minds at ease.
And when jockey Mike Smith called upon the champion filly's rocket-like acceleration in the one-mile test, the response he got eliminated any questions about her edge.
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Despite a layoff of more than three months after her win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Stardom Bound proved as authoritative as ever during her 11/4-length triumph in the Las Virgenes at Santa Anita Park last month — a fact that does not bode well for the nine challengers set to face her in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks this Saturday.
Although none in her camp doubted her talent would carry over into the 3-year-old season, there were still the lingering what-ifs in the backs of their minds.
Unfortunately for her foes, Smith said he felt an improved version of the familiarly powerful force beneath him.
"Oh, definitely, without a doubt, she's maybe even a little more (dominant)," Smith said on Tuesday. "She was on the bridle a whole lot more. She seemed to have grown up, and she was probably only around 75 percent to 80 percent that day and still ran the way she did."
After Stardom Bound proved she was still the leader in her division, IEAH Stables and partners — which purchased her for $5.7 million at the 2008 Fasig-Tipton November mixed sale — said after the Las Virgenes that their ultimate goal would be to test her against males in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 4. The owners said they would even consider running her in the Kentucky Derby rather than in the Oaks.
Stardom Bound's connections say her running style is ideal for pulling off such a feat.
Much like champion older female Zenyatta, Stardom Bound takes a stalk-and-pounce approach to her prey, often lingering at or near the back of the field before unleashing a sweeping kick that swallows up her competition in a handful of strides.
"I do think her style seems to be very suitable for a race like the Derby in that it has proven to be a successful pattern over the years," said Michael Iavarone, president of IEAH Stables. "But we're going to focus on what's best for her. I think horses like her with her level of talent help racing whether she's in the Derby or not."
Although closers can typically be done in by tepid early fractions, Smith says anyone trying to slow things down too much on the front end would only help Stardom Bound.
In the Las Virgenes, pace setter Pinkarella covered the first half mile in an easy :47.62 but had nothing to offer Stardom Bound when she angled out four-wide around the turn and took over in midstretch.
"It's hard to describe, but it's different," Smith said. "She has such an explosive turn of foot that, if you do go slow with her, she'll just catch you that much quicker. I mean, she catches horses within a matter of two or three jumps. So it doesn't really concern me as much with Stardom Bound."