Fillies look for share of spotlight

With plaintive exasperation, Paloma Faith asks, "What's a girl gotta do to get your attention?" Good question. Emanating from overhead speakers, it bounces around and fills empty spaces and time.

Spring arrived this week, the landscape broke out in wildflowers, and what's a filly to do indeed when Derby-cum-spring fever becomes epidemic? The season belongs to the colts, and they seem strong, maybe even outstanding. But will an equally strong, and perhaps even outstanding, group of fillies be overlooked and unappreciated?

As with the colts, the fillies' talent is widespread and deep, and so nobody is likely to dominate, win by 20 and shake the earth.

"What's a girl gotta do to get your attention?" 'Faith' asks again, her voice sinking to the cold edge of the thermocline before rising to the surface and splashing, as if for, yes, attention.

Well, she could win the Kentucky Oaks by 20 lengths. That worked for Rachel Alexandra; her earthquake of a performance shook attention to its genuflecting knee.

But as good as they are these fillies don't have a Rachel Alexandra in their company. Moreover, as with the colts, the fillies' talent is widespread and deep, and so nobody is likely to dominate, win by 20 and shake the earth.

"I'm still waiting for you to notice me," the chanteuse sings, and then asks, "Do you need it on TV?"

Yes, TV would help. But to entice the network cameras and enchant a national audience, a filly often needs to launch a foray across the gender border. That worked for Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace, and over the last three years, in an unprecedented display of distaff dominance, they each became, in succession, Horse of the Year.

Among this season's most prominent 3-year-old fillies, only On Fire Baby has been considered for a Derby raid. She'll make her next start in either the Fantasy Stakes, against fillies on April 11, or the Arkansas Derby, against males on April 14. And she just might be talented enough to beat the "boys" at Oaklawn Park.

"What's a girl gotta do to get your attention?"

Well, here's a promising start. When On Fire Baby won the recent Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn, she ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.64. That same day in Arkansas, Alternation, an older horse who's a multiple stakes winner, won the Razorback Stakes in 1:43.50. In other words, the filly ran just a tick slower than one of the best older horses in the country.

Yes, On Fire Baby could be good enough for a gender border-busting foray. She has lost only twice in her career, and one of those losses hardly matters since it was on Keeneland's synthetic surface. Then again, the other came against males, in the Smarty Jones Stakes, where in her first start of the year she finished third.

Still, On Fire Baby has moved forward since then, and she loves Churchill Downs, where last year she won two stakes. She could test the colts in the Arkansas Derby and, if that's unsuccessful, still aim for the Kentucky Oaks. But with a solid Arkansas Derby effort, her options in May at Churchill might come down to this: being the 5-2 favorite in the Oaks or a 20-1 attention-getting outsider in the Kentucky Derby.

But several fillies deserve attention, including Princess Arabella and Eden's Moon. Bob Baffert, who trains the promising pair, has sent Princess Arabella, who's unbeaten in two sprints, to New Mexico for Sunday's Sunland Park Oaks.

Last year, Baffert used the Sunland Park Oaks to stretch out Plum Pretty in preparation for a Kentucky sojourn. Plum Pretty, of course, won by 25 lengths at Sunland and went on to win the Kentucky Oaks.

Summer Applause, in other words, ran just 1 ½ lengths slower than one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

Eden's Moon, who won the Las Virgenes Stakes, remains in California, where she'll aim at the Santa Anita Oaks on March 31. That same day in Florida, Grace Hall and Yara will have their rematch. At 64-1, Yara upset Grace Hall, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, in the Davona Dale Stakes. They'll be joined in the Gulfstream Oaks by an unbeaten filly that glistens with promise, Zo Impressive.

Millionreasonswhy, who lost to the unbeaten champion My Miss Aurelia by a neck but was otherwise unbeaten herself as a juvenile, returned to competition with a powerfully impressive victory at Laurel Park early this month. Racing for famed Sagamore Farm, once home of the legendary Native Dancer, Millionreasonswhy looks like a filly whose best efforts are in the future, around two turns. She'll make her next start April 7 in the Comely Stakes at Aqueduct, and she, too, has talent that screams for attention.

One, and maybe more, of the best and most promising fillies could be in New Orleans. After Summer Applause led from the start and won an allowance race on New Year's Day by seven lengths, a partnership headed by Gillian Campbell of Naples, Fla., purchased the filly and turned her over to trainer Bret Calhoun.

Before the filly's first start for her new connections, Calhoun told Robby Albarado to teach the filly to control her speed: The trainer instructed the jockey not to grab an early lead, even if he could, because that style probably wouldn't serve her best in the future, but instead to rate Summer Applause and teach her to conserve energy and save her best running for the stretch. As it turned out, that strategy probably contributed to her loss in the Silverbulletday where she finished second to Believe You Can, who led throughout.

"But I think it paid dividends in her next race," Calhoun said, referring to the Rachel Alexandra Stakes, where Summer Applause, despite having to race wide throughout, rallied to win in a performance that ranks among the best of the year.

Summer Applause ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.30. That same day at Fair Grounds, El Padrino won the Risen Star Stakes in 1:42.96. Summer Applause, in other words, ran just 1 ½ lengths slower than one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

"Some horses are very good at 2, and we all get excited about them," Calhoun said, "but some horses don't really come around or figure things out until late in their 2-year-old season or until they're 3. Summer Applause is one of those.

"She's getting better physically and mentally all the time. I know there are some very good fillies out there. But I wouldn't trade places with any of them."

Summer Applause will make her next start March 31 in the Fair Grounds Oaks, where she'll again meet Believe You Can and the Rachel Alexandra runner-up, Avie's Sense, as well as an unbeaten speedster named Small Kitchen.

"What's a girl gotta do to get your attention?" The question still reverberates. But the answer should soon be clear.

To get the sport's and the nation's attention, these 3-year-old fillies only have to be themselves. They're that good.