Even when she was winning by 20 lengths and defeating a classy field of males by daylight, somehow it always seemed that Rachel Alexandra was up against the odds. There were always the questions: did she over extend herself in her last race? Will she be vulnerable for this big test? Will she overcome the outside post? Will she be as good as the boys? She’s only 3-years-old, can she contend against older males? Will she be invincible to the Saratoga curse? Always the questions, and to each of these, Rachel answered with her brilliance. Now, with the race for the ages looming less than one month away, her destined showdown with the undefeated Breeders’ Cup champion, Zenyatta, Rachel must again answer more questions. This time, it isn’t about how good she is, or even how good her foes are. This time, we merely ask: is she ready?
Rachel Alexandra has been enjoying a much-deserved time off since her historic victory in the Woodward at Saratoga this past September against older males. Her trainer, Steve Asmussen, basically let Rachel’s mane down and allowed her to just be a horse in the interim until her training started up again. They intended to train her back at their leisure; then, in January, Zenyatta was suddenly un-retired, and in February, the Apple Blossom’s conditions changed and the race was highlighted on her calendar (The purse was raised to $5 million and is now the record for the largest purse ever offered for a female-restricted race), with the promise she would finally meet the greatest rival she’s never faced. After a year of unforgettable triumphs, two perfect seasons, and dreams of “what-ifs,” Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta’s camps have finally agreed on a race in which to pit their champion females against each other. But before the most anticipated race in the history of American racing goes down, both need to prepare.
For Rachel, who has missed workouts due to exaggerated cold and rainy weather at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where she has been stabled the greater part of her lay-off, will make her return in the New Orleans Ladies this Saturday at the same track. Her name alone has scared away most of the competition. Only four other fillies or mares have dared throw their hats into the contest, but as this will be the most vulnerable the champion has been in a long time, no competitor can be overlooked. Zardana, stablemate to Zenyatta and winner of the Grade II Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park, has made the trip from California to size up the reigning champ. Clear Sailing looks to pose a mild threat, as well; 3-for-3 this season at Fair Grounds, the 4-year-old filly won last time out in the Pelleteri Stakes going 1 1/16th- miles. If Rachel is going to be beaten this year, the New Orleans Ladies will be her most vulnerable race; it’s only serving as a prep to get her back into form before the Apple Blossom on April 9th, but the race will give us a clue as to how she has changed between her 3 and 4-year-old seasons.
Zenyatta will also make her season debut this Saturday, but on the opposite side of the country. The 6-year-old mare will make her first start since November, when she defeated males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in the Grade I Santa Margarita Handicap. Zenyatta never went completely out of training after the Breeders’ Cup, even though she was considered “retired” until the middle of January. But, after her owners saw Zenyatta was much happier at the track and wasn’t ready to leave the racing world, Jerry and Ann Moss decided to race her for another season. The undefeated champ looks fitter than ever; I frankly can’t figure out what the eight contenders who are daring to challenge her in the Santa Margarita are thinking: it’s like eight Davids up against a Goliath among Goliaths.
If anything can beat Zenyatta, it could be the lopsided weight assigned her; the champ will be spotting her rivals between 12-19 pounds, carrying the high weight of 127. The highest weight Zenyatta ever carried was 129 pounds, which happened to be in her first start of 2009, in the Grade I Vanity Handicap, which she won by 2 ½ lengths. Her regular rider, Mike Smith, says that “[Zenyatta]’s really ready. She’s ready for something right now and she’s certainly training like it anyway.” The lack of pace will probably be the invincible mare’s main concern; the closest call she ever had was when a soft pace set up for a furious finish in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar, and left Zenyatta winning by only a head. As to who will run for second money, look to Pretty Unusual, winner of the Grade II El Encino Stakes, and Striking Dancer, winner of the La Canada in February.
Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, is so confident in his Eclipse-winning mare, he says she probably doesn’t even need a race before taking on Rachel Alexandra in the Apple Blossom. For Big Z, the Santa Margarita is sort of a “quality control” to make sure everything is running ship-shape, and perhaps, to merely further her winning record to 15 out of 15. Mostly, Zenyatta is ready to run, and it’s clear that she loves her job. It would be a shocker if she did anything but dazzle us once again before shipping out to Arkansas and her rumble with Rachel.
With all the drama surrounding the lead-up to Apple Blossom Invitational, the road to the Kentucky Derby has, for once in its existence, almost become a story on the back-burner. But this weekend doesn’t only feature the season debuts of the famous champion females, it also hosts three challenging Derby prep races with a constellation of stars all their own. At Oaklawn, the Rebel Stakes will see the dirt debut of leading Kentucky Derby hopeful Lookin at Lucky, the Tampa Bay Derby will see the stakes debut of Odysseus, and the San Felipe at Santa Anita will put Caracortado‘s win-streak on the line. Frankly, this is one of the most intriguing Saturdays this year when it comes to Kentucky Derby preps. Each of the aforementioned races boasts at least one of the early favorites for the Derby, and each contender will be facing an unknown variable.
The Blood Horse‘s Steve Haskin did a stellar job breaking down the contenders of each race in his article, “Kentucky Derby Trail: Make or Break Weekend,” and since I would only be relaying the same tips and information if I broke the races down here, I’ll leave Haskin to it.
I will say two things: if Odysseus wins the Tampa Bay Derby and legitimizes himself as a contender on the Derby trail, look out. His name will soar to the top of many lists, and his story will explode faster than a stick of Acme dynamite. And if Lookin at Lucky wins the Rebel Stakes, he will likely start a new trend for synthetic horses looking for Derby glory, and will have to be placed at the very top of the list with Eskendereya, making the field for the Derby extremely competitive, indeed. It’s taken a while, but it looks like the focus is narrowing, and a few bright spots are becoming clearer in focus on the road to the roses.
For post times and a list of networks covering the races, see the schedule at NTRA.com. Additionally, NTRA.com will be airing the New Orleans Ladies and the Santa Margarita live on the website for free.