ARCADIA, Calif. -- The $300,000 Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita on Saturday is an encore performance for Leah's Secret.
There were discussions last month about retiring the 6-year-old mare after she started in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, the most lucrative race of her career. After she won that race, by 2 1/4 lengths, her retirement was postponed. At least until after Saturday's Santa Maria.
At stake for Leah's Secret on Saturday is yet another potential milestone, her first win in a Grade 1 race.
"She's in the best form of her life," said Michael McCarthy, trainer Todd Pletcher's assistant in California. "She's never looked better. She's definitely turned the corner."
Owned by WinStar Farms, Leah's Secret will attempt to win her fourth consecutive stakes in the Santa Maria, which is run at 1 1/16 miles. The streak began in the Grade 2 Chilukki Stakes at a mile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2 and continued in the Grade 2 Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct on Nov. 28.
In those races, and the Sunshine Millions Distaff, she stalked the pace before taking the lead in the final furlong.
"She's got just enough tactical speed that she can keep herself close to the first flight of horses," McCarthy said.
The only blemishes on Leah's Secret's record in the last six months are fourth-place finishes in Grade 1 stakes in New York in August and September, the Ballerina at Saratoga and the Beldame at Belmont Park.
The Santa Maria has drawn a field of 12, but may lose a few starters to the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies on Sunday.
The Santa Maria has a deep field. Of the 12 entrants, 11 have won stakes and eight are graded or group stakes winners.
Model, 5, has yet to win a graded stakes, though she ran second in three such races last year. She was second in the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland last October.
In her last start, Model was second as the favorite to Santa Maria entrant Briecat in the Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 7. Briecat led throughout, outfinishing Model by 2 1/4 lengths.
"The track was somewhat biased at that time of the meeting," said Model's trainer, Neil Drysdale. "I'm looking forward to racing her. I expect her to run well."
Trainer Bobby Frankel has two entrants - the English Group 3 winner Visit and two-time Grade 1 winner Country Star.
Visit has raced exclusively on turf in her nine-race career, which includes two starts in the United States - a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf here in October and a fast-closing third in the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park in November.
The switch in surfaces does not concern Frankel, who sees similarities between Visit and Ventura, a mare he trains who won the BC Filly and Mare Sprint and Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap in her last two starts in recent months.
"She's trained good on it," Frankel said of Visit. "She reminds me a little bit of Ventura, the way she travels. She's a small filly and that's why she gets over the track."
Country Star, 4, won the Alcibiades Stakes and Hollywood Starlet, both Grade 1 races, at 2, but did not duplicate that form last year, winning just an allowance race in three starts. In her only start this year, Country Star was second as the favorite to Life Is Sweet in the Gradeo2 El Encino Stakes here on Jan. 18.
"I think she'll run well," Frankel said. "She's only had one race in [five] months. She might have needed it."
Frankel said the conditions of the Santa Maria made the race more attractive than the La Canada for Country Star.
"It's a Grade 1 and a mile and a sixteenth," he said. "She's a double Grade 1 winner, so a Grade 2 won't help her. I like Grade 1's better than Grade 2's."