Diana recap: Forever, in a flash

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No, Saturday’s Grade I Diana Stakes wasn’t a steeplechase, but it was two steeplechase greats, Augustin Stable’s George Strawbridge Jr. and trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who won the race with Forever Together.

Forever Together provided Sheppard and Strawbridge with their first Saratoga stakes winner on the flat since Latice won the ungraded Waya here in 2005. The Grade I score goes alongside that of Augustin/Sheppard great With Anticipation, who took the Sword Dancer in 2001 and 2002.

Forever Together (Julien Leparoux) motored down the stretch after coming from the back of the pack to win the Diana by three-quarters of a length over Dynaforce. Rutherienne finished 3 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up. It was a nose back to Vacare in fourth. Wait A While, the 3-1 favorite, displayed no kick in the stretch and finished seventh.

Forever Together wasn’t supposed to be a factor, according to the morning-line odds for the $500,000 Diana, but Sheppard felt confident the 4-year-old filly belonged after a strong third in the 1-mile Just A Game, a Grade I at Belmont Park June 7. Still, Sheppard’s filly had four Grade I winners to contend with: Bit Of Whimsy, Rutherienne, Vacare and Wait A While.

The Diana provided Forever Together with an extra furlong and was run over a turf course with moisture in it, something she had already shown a liking for when she won an overnight stakes at Arlington Park in May.

So when Sheppard saw his filly listed at 15-1 in the morning line, with only one horse in the 10-horse field carrying higher odds, he was puzzled. But the bettors ended up being savvy and sent Forever Together off as the sixth choice at 9-1. Of course, handicappers undoubtedly remembered the work Sheppard has done on the flat with turf horses such as With Anticipation, Crowd Pleaser and First Approach.

“Actually when I saw her odds in the paper, it took a little bit of pressure off,” said Sheppard, who also won the Diana for Strawbridge with Ratings in 1993. “But the bettors did seem quite to like her.”

Sheppard credited the patience exhibited by exercise riders Danielle Hodsdon and Barry Wiseman with Forever Together, who has a mind of her own when it comes to training. She doesn’t like to be rushed in her morning routine, and is prone to stopping in her tracks when she reaches the track.

“She is a bit of a prima donna,” Sheppard said. “She is used to getting her own way.”

In the Diana, Forever Together trailed the field for a half-mile before launching her move around the far turn. Leparoux swung the filly five-wide coming into the stretch and then began to pick off her rivals, until the only one left was Dynaforce, who had pressed the pace set by Bayou’s Lassie.

 “To see her running by horses of that caliber like that is pretty amazing,” Sheppard said.

Leparoux, riding Forever Together for the first time, felt like a mere passenger.

“Coming into the straight, when I got her out she took off,” Leparoux said. “It was nice, a nice feeling. (Sheppard) told me to get her to relax. He said she does not have to be last but to get her to relax – but we were last anyway. He told me to get away however she wants and then relax. She was relaxed. I got a clear trip, too. I never had to do anything. It’s not like I had to wait or she had to get in tight or anything. I could move whenever I wanted to.”

The Diana was a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race and provided Forever Together, a daughter of Belong To Me, with an automatic starting berth in the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita Oct. 24.

Sheppard said he would target the Flower Bowl at Belmont Park Sept. 27, as a prep race for the Breeders’ Cup.

Strawbridge couldn’t take his eyes off the replay of the Diana, and shook his head in amazement as he watched, over and over again, the monster move made by Forever Together, a $240,000 2-year-old purchase at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale.

“I didn’t know if she would be able to make up that kind of ground on the soft turf,” Strawbridge said. “This is a great group of fillies (she beat).”

Forever Together returned $20. Her final time over a course labeled good was a solid 1:46.52.

Forever Together had decent form on the dirt before being switched to the turf two starts before the Diana. Last year, she won the Grade II Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park on the dirt, and was the runner-up in the Grade II Beaumont at Keeneland on Polytrack. But after the Beaumont, her form tailed off and Sheppard was looking for a way to get her back in the winner’s circle.

Apparently, he found the solution.

Additional reporting by Joe Clancy