Facing the Giants
If any horse could do it, this one could.
First Thing's First
Forget about the Apple Blossom. Who will face Rachel Alexandra in the March 13 New Orleans Ladies at the Fair Grounds? And who will take on Zenyatta in the Santa Margarita Handicap (gr. I) at Santa Anita on the same day?
The results of these seasonal debuts for both runners will determine if the highly-anticipated meeting at Oaklawn will even happen. And as everybody knows, the best time to take down a champion is in the first race of the year case in point, Gio Ponti's loss to Karelian in the Feb. 20 Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup at Tampa Bay Downs.
"It's kind of hard to say right now," Santa Anita Stakes Coordinator Zachary Soto said of likely entries for the Santa Margarita. Nominations close March 4. "I'd say the ones that ran in the Santa Maria like My Baby Baby and Mushka could be contenders, then maybe Pretty Unusual and Striking Dancer."
My Baby Baby and Striking Dancer were both nominated to the Apple Blossom this morning by trainer Kenny McPeek. See story for details.
According to Jim Mulvihill, communications manager for Fair Grounds, the primary contenders for the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at this time are Double Espresso, winner of the Feb. 20 Pan Zareta Stakes at Fair Grounds, and Clear Sailing, winner of the Feb. 13 Pelleteri Stakes at Fair Grounds. Nominations close Feb. 27.
"Scott (Jones, Stakes Coordinator) probably has a few more, and I know our racing secretary is pretty confident he can get a field of six or eight," Mulvihill said. "I'd expect Asmussen would put another one of his own in there to help the field size."
Trainer Steve Asmussen has the talented 4-year-old War Echo, who finished third in the Pellerteri but could start next in the March 6 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn. C.N.
Not many trainers will alter course for that gamble, especially at the higher levels of the sport, as even those who wish to do well by the sport must first do right by their runners. Trainer Mike Mitchell, for instance, has St. Trinians, who beat Life Is Sweet in the Feb. 13 Santa Maria Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita. He's keeping her in California, where her next start will be against the boys in the March 6 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I)."I would entertain it if it was a synthetic track they were running on, because my mare's unbeaten here in the U.S. on a synthetic track," he said. "I think my mare is good enough to run with those horses, and that's a very strong statement, but I wouldn't go all the way there just to try to prove a point. I want to keep my mare sound and keep her going great because we're having a lot of fun with her. When they're throwing five million at you, jee whiz, that's tough to pass up. But for the good of my horse, I just have to." Of the ten nominees besides Bambera, My Baby Baby and Striking Dancer, nominated by trainer Kenny McPeek this morning, have the most credible and up-to-date resumes. My Baby Baby finished third in the Santa Maria behind St. Trinians and Life Is Sweet. Striking Dancer comes off a victory in the Feb. 14 LaCanada Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. "Allen Jerkens is my all-time hero and he beat Secretariat twice," McPeek said. "If I could accomplish half of what he did, I'd be a happy man. I've always been a swing high and hard kind of guy; I might miss, but it wasn't for lack of trying." McPeek took on Azeri in 2003 with Take Charge Lady in the Apple Blossom. His filly led to deep stretch and nearly conquered the then-unbeaten champion, who closed late to nip them in a photo on the line. "I've got two legitimately solid fillies here, they're good fillies," McPeek said. "My Baby Baby hasn't necessarily played at this level before but she got beat half a length by Life Is Sweet last time out, and Striking Dancer is working up to it. We all know horse races are funny things, there are no givens, and you've gotta go out there and run for it. If either one of our fillies are doing extremely well and we feel like the circumstances would be more positive than negative, we'll go." The rest of the nominees thus far present a slightly less competitive picture. Black Magic Mamma is a 4-year-old filly who took 13 tries to break her maiden and last ran fourth, beaten 6 ¼ lengths, in a $38,000 allowance at Philadelphia Park. Love To Tell, a 5-year-old daughter of Stage Colony, won the Jersey Lilly Stakes at Sam Houston on Jan. 30, her first victory in almost a year. Unforgotten ran seventh in the Sunshine Millions Distaff and got her last victory in the Dec. 4 Treasure Chest Stakes at Delta Downs, although she has placed in two grade II races and three grade III races in the past two years. Just Jenda won the Honeybee Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn in 2009, but she hasn't raced since a fifth-place finish, 3 ¼ lengths back, in the Oct. 24 Lexus Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland last fall. Stardom Bound hasn't won a race since her victory in the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) on March 7, 2009. She finished seventh, beaten 5 ¾ lengths, last time out in the LaCanada after missing her season debut, the Jan. 17 El Encino (gr. II), by 1 ¼ lengths. Justwhistledixie's last effort was a fourth-place finish in that same race, and her last victory was in March of 2009 in the Bonnie Miss Handicap (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park (she has a pair of seconds in Belmont's Acorn Stakes in June and in the Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct last November in between). "Obviously on paper we're not as fast as those two, but our filly runs hard every time," said Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds. "We'll wait and see if the race develops. You'd be less inclined to run against only Zenyatta, so we'll just keep all of our options open. If they both go, the timing is really good for us." Sweet Repent alone comes into the race with a solid set of victories under her girth on a five-race win streak, four of them stakes, she last took the Jan. 30 Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream Park but all her other career victories came at Calder Race Course, and she has never run outside the state of Florida. Also, on Feb. 24, co-owner Jim Pino said she's been turned out at the farm, which makes her potential of pursuing the race seem highly unlikely. "If Rachel and Zenyatta go, I'd say we're 50-50," he said. That's the overwhelming attitude among the eight nominees, commitment not necessarily strong. Stardom Bound's camp, for instance, would like to see her turn in a solid performance before she takes on the giants. "I think we're on the fence about everything right now," said Mike Iavarone of IEAH. "We'd like to get there, but she really has to show that she deserves to run against those kind of horses. We'd like to try her on the grass, mid-to-late March, maybe at Gulfstream, and if she shows up we'll go from there."
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