With three big races on tap this weekend, the 3-year-old division is as muddled as the ever-shifting bracketology of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Meanwhile, this much is crystal clear: Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are each heavy favorites for their respective season debuts today, which will serve as preps for their big showdown in the Apple Blossom on April 9.
Although Zenyatta has trained through the winter and should be more fit and prepared for the Grade I Santa Margarita at Santa Anita than Rachel Alexandra is for the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds, Zenyatta has a little extra pressure to win because she sports an undefeated career record at 14-0.
“I guess I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t [add pressure],” Hall of Famer Mike Smith, Zenyatta’s jockey, said during a National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference on Tuesday.
“Anyone who tells you they’re not nervous in a situation like that, I think they’re telling you a pretty good story.”
Some of the top Kentucky Derby prospects will be on display in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs, Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park and Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita.
It’s also an important day for 3-year-old fillies, who will race in the Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn and the Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay.
Everyone will be watching the two queens of racing making their preliminary maneuvers on opposite sides of the chessboard, though.
Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, is 1-5 on the morning line against just four rivals in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies at what has been her home track since resuming published workouts on Jan. 31.
Zenyatta, the two-time Eclipse Award-winning 6-year-old mare, drew the No. 8 post in the nine-horse field for the Santa Margarita, where, at 127, she’ll spot everyone from 12 to 19 pounds.
She carried 129 in the Vanity last year.
“Yes, there certainly is [some concern], especially when the competition’s carrying 111 and 114 pounds, we’re spotting them quite a bit of weight to start out the year,” Smith said. “But fortunate for us, she’s a big mare and she carries the weight very well. So, hopefully, it won’t bother her too much.”
Smith said he’s less concerned about the post draw, since Zenyatta’s style is to come from behind, and she won’t need to make a big run out of the gate to gain position.
As much pressure as there is on Zenyatta to keep her undefeated record intact, Smith said he also has to take into consideration the fact that the Santa Margarita is a steppingstone to the Apple Blossom, and not the ultimate goal.
He’ll have to balance pursuing the win against not overusing Zenyatta, but he said her training suggests she’ll come out firing, and she has the natural ability to not overextend herself in a race.
“If she gets her opportunity, I think she’s going to run big first time back,” Smith said. “She’s really ready. She’s ready for something, right now, and she’s certainly training like it. I’m really looking forward to it.
“She’s really good about getting to the last horse and just doing what she needs to do to get the job done, so she certainly helps a lot.
“It’s just the way she’s made. It’s all push. When she strides, she seems to make up a couple lengths in a jump or two. So it’s pretty incredible. She’s something else.”
Smith said he’s rooting for Rachel Alexandra to win the New Orleans Ladies.
Scheduled post time for the Fair Grounds race is 5:15 p.m. EST; for the Santa Margarita, it’s 6:37.
“I’m a big fan of hers, too,” Smith said. “I hope she’s doing well, and I hope she runs big and we run well and we can meet on [April 9] in Arkansas.
“It’s going to be not much different than any one of us would really envision it. Rachel’s going to be forwardly placed, as she normally is, or just about all the time. Zenyatta’s going to be sitting back, getting ready to launch that powerful run.”
A total of 45 were nominated to the Apple Blossom Invitational, which will carry a purse of $5 million if both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra run, on Friday. Among the nominees are Careless Jewel, the 2009 Alabama winner at Saratoga Race Course, and Stardom Bound.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert wants Lookin at Lucky to be lookin’ at the finish line a little more resolutely, so he’ll add French-cup blinkers, which are only modestly vision-restrictive, for the 2009 2-year-old champion’s season debut in the Rebel.
The three-time Grade I winner, the 7-5 program favorite, will face six rivals who include Grade I Hopeful winner Dublin (3-1) and Grade I Breeders’ Futurity winner Noble’s Promise (5-2), who was third behind Vale of York and Lookin at Lucky in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and second to Lookin at Lucky in the Grade I CashCall Futurity in December.
Baffert said the decision to add blinkers was made after discussing it with Garrett Gomez, who has ridden Lookin at Lucky for all sx of his career starts.
“He thought he’d be a little bit more focused, because when he makes the lead, he sort of shuts it down,” Baffert said during the NTRA teleconference.
“He’s pretty ready. I wouldn’t send him up there unless I felt good about it. He’s a franchise horse. I’ve got to make sure he’s ready. I don’t have him ready to win the Kentucky Derby yet or something. But he’s ready enough to run well, and I want to get a nice, tough race out of him. We want to win. We’re going to find out a lot about him, on how he handles that dirt and what kind of trip he gets.”
All three of today’s Kentucky Derby preps have drawn seven-horse fields.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s deep 3-year-old division will be active at Tampa Bay, where Super Saver is the 2-1 favorite, and at Santa Anita, where Interactif will get his first non-turf start in five races in the San Felipe.
The two-time Grade III winner, who took the With Anticipation on the Saratoga grass last summer, will face undefeated Caracortado, who made it 5-for-5 by winning the Robert Lewis on Feb. 13.
The top three finishers from that race — Dave in Dixie and American Lion were behind Caracortado — are back for the San Felipe, as well as Sidney’s Candy, winner of the seven-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita two days after the Robert Lewis.
Caracortado has been ridden by the lesser-known Paul Atkinson in all five of his starts, and if the son of Cat Dreams makes it to the Kentucky Derby, trainer Michael Machowsky said he’ll stick with Atkinson, even though he’s sure to be inundated by calls from jockey agents.
“He’s got nothing to worry about,” Machowsky during the NTRA teleconference. “I own a piece of the horse, and this guy he’s been with me for 20 years.
“Yes, it’s a dream for everybody, jockey, trainer, owners, breeders, that get a horse to the Derby, and Paul deserves as much chance as a guy like Garrett Gomez or Mike Smith do. If we get there and everything’s going great, I won’t have any regrets with throwing him up on that Saturday, and letting him take him out there.”
Super Saver won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs by five lengths on Nov. 28 in his last start.
He’ll be challenged by two Tampa Bay-based colts, Schoolyard Dreams and Uptowncharlybrown, who were 2-3, respectively, to another Pletcher colt, Rule, in the Sam Davis. Jumping up to stakes company for the first time is Odysseus, who is coming off a 15-length allowance win at Tampa Bay on Feb. 17.
Fillies in action
She Be Wild, the 2009 2-year-old filly champion who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, will try to rebound from her fourth-place finish in the Forward Gal in the Florida Oaks, where she’s the 2-1 favorite.
She was beaten that day by Bickersons, who subsequently tried to stretch out to a mile in the Davona Dale two weeks ago, but faded. Bickersons is coming right back in the six-furlong Cicada at Aqueduct.
Beautician, runner-up to She Be Wild in the BC and to Hot Dixie Chick in the Spinaway at Saratoga, is the 9-5 favorite for the Honeybee.
Gulfstream Park’s feature is the one-mile Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap, which has drawn a wide-open field of 11 led by 9-5 This Ones for Phil, the Sunshine Millions Sprint winner.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin will send out Grasshopper, best known for dueling with Street Sense in the 2007 Travers, and Past the Point, sixth to Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward last September and sixth to Quality Road in the Donn Handicap last time out.
The field also includes Cool Coal Man, trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who was fifth in the Gulfstream Handicap last year and is coming off a two-length win in an allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream on Jan. 22.