Sunday, March 14, 2010

Messin' with perfection

With a potential bout between title-holders approaching at Oaklawn Park on April 9, John Shirreffs -- who trains two-time champion older female Zenyatta -- has already knocked down Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, and he did it with a whole lot less mare.

Two-time champion older female Zenyatta on Saturday moved to within one win of tying a group of horses that include all-time greats Citation and Cigar with 16 consecutive victories by cruising to a 1 1/4-length victory in the Santa Margarita H.-G1 at Santa Anita. Meanwhile, 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra was summarily dethroned in the ungraded New Orleans Ladies Stakes by a determined, and Shirreffs-trained Zardana, who overtook her in the stretch.

Both champions were heavy favorites in their 2010 debuts, especially Rachel, who was sent off at a ridiculous 1/2o at Fair Grounds. But we really could have seen this coming.

Zenyatta, though briefly "retired," has in fact remained pretty consistently and impressively in training since her Breeders' Cup Classic win at Santa Anita in November. Meanwhile, Rachel took several months off after beating older males in September's Woodward S.-G1, a gutty effort that obviously took much out of her. And her conditioner, Steve Asmussen, said prior to the New Orleans Ladies' Stakes that his now 4-year-old filly wasn't 100 percent.

Rachel probably shouldn't have needed to be 100 percent to beat the group of four that she was presented this weekend at Fair Grounds. Zardana is a Grade 2 winner on synthetic, but was trying dirt for the first time in a good while and is simply no Zenyatta. And while rider Calvin Borel seemed to be discontent with the ride he was asked to give Rachel on Saturday -- "I wanted to let her run her race early, but they wanted me to wait" -- ultimately Rachel had a good trip and a pretty easy first six furlongs (1:12.86), and still couldn't hold on after taking the lead, battling but losing to Zardana in 1:43.55.

"My filly tried hard," said Borel. "She needed the race, that's all."

And with that, I couldn't agree more. Rachel really needed this race.

Minutes later Saturday, on the west coast, Zenyatta made her fans a bit nervous for a moment -- as is her wont -- but ultimately eased past the Santa Margarita field to win by more than a length without jockey Mike Smith ever striking her with the whip. It was as professional as any victory in her 15-race unbeaten career. And she looks as perfect as her lifetime record heading toward the potentially $5 million Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn, which Shirreffs says is Zen's target, Rachel or "no."

As for Rachel, the Apple Blossom might well be a "no."

"The filly's lacking fitness," said Asmussen after Rachel's defeat. "It was my job to have her there, and I didn't do it. ... She's not where I thought she was and if I had thought she'd get beat, she wouldn't (have) run. You take her back, you evaluate her, you see how her mood is, her diet, how she goes back to the racetrack, how she breezes. No crystal ball could see that far ahead (to the Apple Blossom)."

Clearly Rachel wasn't perfect on Saturday, but her career never has been. Though she was flawless at 3, beating colts and geldings in three Grade 1 races and in every way deserving Horse of the Year honors, Rachel had been defeated three times as a 2-year-old. Now she's o-fer in one start at age 4 and, in her own trainer's words, clearly not where she needs to be less than a month away from that looming showdown with Zenyatta at Oaklawn.

And Asmussen knows full well that Rachel had better be close as she can to perfect before she goes messin' with perfection.


  1. cruising to a 1 1/4-length victory in the Santa Margarita H.-G1 at Santa Anita.


    Twas more like grinding it out.

    Neither of these gals showed that they are close to their peak fitness. The motel reservations made for The Apple Blossom are going to be canceled very shortly.

  2. Maybe "cruising" isn't the best word, but Zen was taken on a different path than normal (usually she just loops the field and coasts home) and this time had to move between horses, as that's what Mike Smith asked her to do. He still didn't need to flog her to get her home more than a length in front. So, while not a breeze, Zenyatta still won with a little something in reserve, don't you think?

  3. I think "cruising" fits perfectly, there was no whip used in the Santa Margarita on Zenyatta, she did it all on her own and didn't even break a sweat. That was a handride in the purest sense of the term. She looked to me like she was more fit than ever before if anything. This was another easy win for her and I think she's got a full tank left over.


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