Since it was first run in 1983, the Las Virgenes Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita has drawn the best fillies in the West who have their eyes on the blanket of lilies worn only by the winner of the Kentucky Oaks (GI) every year on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby (GI). The one-mile race, which also serves as a prep for the Santa Anita Oaks (GI) in early April, has over the years drawn the likes of Lite Light, Lakeway, Serena’s Song, Sharp Cat, Keeper Hill, Excellent Meeting, Surfside, Rags to Riches, Stardom Bound, Blind Luck, Beholder and last year, Songbird.
This year, a small field of five will assemble, but the compact bunch features a recently crowned champion and an improving newcomer generating a lot of buzz from the barn of Songbird’s Hall of Fame trainer.
Two weeks ago, Ciaglia, Alesia and Exline-Border et. al’s Champagne Room was crowned the 2016 champion juvenile filly after a five-race campaign that saw her break her maiden in the Sorrento Stakes (GII) at Del Mar over the summer and then finish it off with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). The Pete Eurton-trained daughter of Broken Vow received a brief freshener after Racing’s Championship Day and has been back working over her home track for the better part of six weeks. The already stout bay filly has grown and matured into a racing machine even in the three months since she last ran and appears to have all the goods to get the job done in her return. She drew post position two and breaks just to the outside of the speed, so expect jockey Mario Gutierrez have her sit just off the pace and launch her winning move as the field straightens out for the drive.
Santa Ynez Stakes (GII) heroine Unique Bella, who rides a two-race win streak by a combined 17 ½ lengths, hails from a barn that knows how to get top fillies to the races. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has handled the campaign of dual champion Songbird to perfection and this gray daughter of Tapit seems headed in the same direction. But for one bad break, she’d be undefeated and she’s not missed a beat in training, logging five black-letter moves since mid-November, including a nice half-mile which received the coveted “breezing” designation from clockers this past Wednesday. She’s clearly bred to love the distance in her two-turn debut and her improvement, numbers-wise, as she’s stretched out is something we want to see when handicapping. Champagne Room is the top choice mostly because she has the Eclipse Award, but if she were to falter — even a bit — Unique Bella is the one to take advantage. Hot jockey Mike Smith is aboard once again and the pair, who are likely to sit off the pace in the early going, will break from post position four.
Miss Southern Miss has been off since winning the Surfer Girl Stakes at a mile on the turf here four months ago, but she is graded stakes-placed, having finished behind Champagne Room in the Sorrento last summer. She’s only had one poor finish, in the Del Mar Debutante, but that came after a poor break and a wide trip, so she does have legitimate excuses there. She also has the talented trainer Keith Desormeaux managing her career and his Hall of Fame brother, Kent, in the irons; and while she seems a shade below the top two, she figures to be a strong candidate to complete the trifecta. She drew the outside and won’t be in any hurry early, so expect to see her streaking down the lane late in the final yards.
Mistressofthenight returns to face winners after breaking her maiden last out by 4 ¼ lengths at 6 ½ furlongs that was originally scheduled for the downhill turf course. She’s faced tough horses before, finishing 11th and last in the Chandelier Stakes (GI) last fall in an ill-conceived experiment, but, now, back with some winning confidence, her best certainly makes her a serious contender to hit the board. Trainer Richard Baltas is very successful when his charges stretch out after sprinting, and while this filly’s pedigree says short may be best, a mile is probably in her wheelhouse. Corey Nakatani returns for the mount.
And, as expected, Reddam Racing and trainer Doug O’Neill send out recent maiden winner Mopotism. She was third in the Los Alamitos Starlet (GI) late last year to the talented Abel Tasman and the sidelined American Gal, but she’s struggled against the likes of Champagne Room and Unique Bella. She’ll be headed straight to the lead from her innermost post position under jockey Flavien Prat, hoping she’ll have enough in her tank to hold off the top choices in the lane.
The Las Virgenes is the sixth race on Sunday’s card and the field of fillies will leave the gate at 1:30 p.m. PT. First-race post time for the entire eight-race card has been moved up to 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time to accommodate the Super Bowl game later in the day.