Richard Baltas, Hebert Bloodstock and J K Racing LLC’s Forever Darling bided her time tracking pacesetter Pretty N Cool on the backstretch of Saturday’s $200,500 Santa Ynez S. (G2), then pounced in the lane to grab control of the Road to the Kentucky Oaks points contest and go on to record a half-length victory under jockey Rafael Bejarano.

Forever Darling made a winning debut on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard, earning 10 points toward a starting berth in that Grade 1 contest on May 6 under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.

The Baltas trainee’s only previous stakes experience came as an eighth-place run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) last out in late October, but she passed the stakes hurdle with flying colors on Saturday.

Sent off the 4-1 third choice in the seven-filly field, Forever Darling took up a pressing spot just outside of 2-1 favorite Pretty N Cool through splits of :22.48, :45.57 and 1:09 84. Code Warrior was tracking off Forever Darling’s flank in third while My Dynamo was trapped down on the rail behind Pretty N Cool.

Not much changed entering the stretch, with Pretty N Cool looking well on her way to scoring for the first time since taking the Matron S. (G2) in mid-October at Belmont Park. Alas, it wasn’t to be for the Bob Baffert pupil as Forever Darling kicked into gear and surged past to finish 6 1/2 furlongs on Santa Anita Park’s fast main track in 1:16.25.

Code Warrior also managed to get the best of Pretty N Cool, though her margin was only a neck on the wire. The dark bay filly’s runner-up effort was good for four points and position number 17 on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard, while Pretty N Cool took home three points. It was another 1 1/4 lengths back to fellow Baffert charge Treasuring, who garnered one point toward a spot in the Oaks starting gate.

Forever Darling was the winner on this day, though, and paid $10.20 to her faithful backers in just her second stakes try. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the chestnut miss ran fourth in her career debut at Del Mar on August 1 and captured a Santa Anita maiden on September 26 by 1 3/4 lengths.

Bred in Kentucky by Debby Oxley, the daughter of Congrats was a bargain $8,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase before RNAing for $65,000 as an OBS April two-year-old last spring.

Forever Darling is out of the Deputy Minister mare Darling My Darling, a multiple Grade 1-placed stakes winner who is a half-sister to Japanese Horse of the Year and successful sire Zenno Rob Roy.

SANTA YNEZ QUOTES

Rafael Bejarano, jockey Forever Darling, winner: “I had a good position from the beginning. I knew that one of Baffert’s horses would try to go straight to the lead so I just tried to figure out which one. I saw Martin (Garcia) go with Pretty N Cool and I knew she was the horse to beat, so I put us in right behind them and went from there. I knew pressure was coming by the three-eighths pole and I just tried to keep going.

“I don’t think she wants to go two turns yet. I think she would like six, six and a half, seven, but the Breeders’ Cup was too tough for her. I thought she was so much better today, running six-and-a-half.”

Richard Baltas, trainer and co-owner Forever Darling, winner: “We thought she displaced in the Breeders’ Cup and we found she had an ulcer on her soft palate when we did surgery on her. This race didn’t come up as tough as I thought for a Grade 2, but I’m so grateful to win, because I own a share of her.

“He (Bejarano) had to ride her hard, but she just fought it out. She has a lot of determination and you can’t teach that to a horse. I’m just glad that I own a piece of her and I train her. It’s just a great day for me.”

Manny Badilla, trainer Code Warrior, second: “She ran huge. We’re going to hit the (California) Oaks next at Golden Gate (Fields on February 6). It’s a mile and a sixteenth and it’s our last shot with those fillies up there. We’ll be back down here again soon, no doubt.”