It may seem ridiculously premature to suggest that a 2-year-old who has raced only twice, who has never been subjected to a serious challenge, who has never even run in a stakes race, looks like a sure-fire prospect to become a champion.
Still, it is difficult to imagine anything but a glorious future for the filly Larida, who faces the first major test of her career in the $219,010 Selima Stakes at Laurel this afternoon.
Larida won her debut at Belmont Park in September by eight lengths, then ran away with her second start by 9 1/2. But she does not figure to be a flash in the pan. A daughter of the great Northern Dancer out of the stakes-winning mare Kittiwake, her pedigree suggests strongly that she will improve with age and will do even better as she has the chance to run longer distances.
She figures to improve, also, because her trainer, Woody Stephens, is a horseman of the old school who brings his 2-year-olds along slowly. They don't often win at first asking, let alone by eight lengths.
"This filly wasn't even completely fit when she ran her first race," Stephens said from New York, "but she came out running. The next time she ran, we eased her off the pace just to test her. (Jockey) Eddie Maple said that at the five-sixteenths pole he clucked to her and she just about jumped over the horse in front of her. And she's fitter now than she was for that race."
No trainer has a better record of developing fillies than Stephens. He trains three of the best 3-year-old fillies in America this season. And he has trained four winners of the Selima Stakes in the past decade.
All handicapping logic suggests that Stephens should win the race again this afternoon. Even though Larida ought to be a short-priced favorite, the race may offer some decent betting possibilities.
Larida faces six rivals today. Maniches and Chilling Thought, the best-known of them, are both New York stakes winners. Maniches, however, seems to be a grass specialist without comparable ability on the main track. Chilling Thought ran second in the rich Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland last week, but the time of the race wasn't much and the filly who beat her, Apalachee Honey, isn't much, either.
Larida's principal competition today will come from a horse named Ambassador of Luck, who is unbeaten in three lifetime starts. But in contrast to Stephens, who can be blase about the likelihood of winning a $126,906 first prize, Ambassador of Luck's trainer, Bill Carrelli, is almost awestruck by the prospect. "I feel like Rocky," he said.
Carrelli trains a three-horse stable based in Kentucky. When he saddled Ambassador of Luck to win something called the Clipsetta Stakes at Latonia Race Course, it was the first stakes triumph of his career. That triumph prompted him to come east, and two weeks ago his filly won impressively in a stake at Keystone. Encouraged by that triumph, Carelli said, "We decided to shoot for the big time." He scrapped plans to run in a cheap stake at Penn National, came to Laurel, instead, and enlisted the legendary Bill Shoemaker as his jockey.
Carelli's dreams of glory don't quite figure to come true because of the presence of Larida in the field. But Carelli should be delighted to collect the second-place money, and bettors should gladly accept whatever the Larida-Ambassador of Luck exacta pays.