ARCADIA, Calif. -- On a cloudy afternoon at Santa Anita Race Course, trainer John Shirreffs sent a message to fellow horseman Steve Asmussen. Mano a mano, game on.
The message came courtesy of not one, but two big bay mares -- first when the unheralded Zardana beat 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in Louisiana at Fair Grounds Race Course, and second when champion older mare Zenyatta won in California at Santa Anita to extend her record to 15-for-15.
"California's tough ... we're tough. Don't take us short," Shirreffs said following Zenyatta's score in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Margarita Invitational (G1).
It is all systems go for Team Zenyatta en route to the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park, a race the 6-year-old mare won in 2008 and has been pointing toward since the beginning of the year. But the likelihood of Rachel Alexandra making that highly anticipated meeting in Hot Springs, Ark., remains in question after her finish three-quarters of a length behind Shirreff's Brazilian invader Zardana, a 9-1 shot making her first start on dirt since 2007 in her native country.
Zenyatta ran to victory in the Santa Margarita after trailing the field in her signature style, dodging to the rail and inhaling the front-runner, 50-1 Dance to My Tune, before going on to win by a 1¼-length margin. Rachel Alexandra sat just behind the pace-setting Fighter Wing in the New Orleans Ladies while jockey Calvin Borel reined her in until moving to the lead after the half-mile, but Zardana ranged up three-wide to take the victory by three-quarters of a length for owner Arnold Zetcher.
"My little filly tried hard. She needed the race, that's all," Borel said. "She needed the race more than anything. I wanted to let her run her race early but they wanted me to wait. I wanted to go on past the speed horse early; I'd have got by her anytime and my filly could have gone on, but they wanted me to wait and not get into her until the 16th pole."
"She's not where I thought she was and if I'd thought she'd get beat she wouldn't have run," Asmussen told reporters after the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro lost the 1 1/16-mile New Orleans Ladies. "The filly's lacking fitness. It was my job to have her there, and I didn't do it."
Ironically, Jess Jackson's Horse of the Year could play the underdog going into her next race. Meanwhile, Zenyatta came one win closer to eclipsing the record of victories by a Thoroughbred racehorse (19, set by Pepper's Pride in 2008). She is one win away from ranking with horses like Cigar and Citation, who both remained unbeaten to 16 wins.
"I don't know what to say, I'm like a fan," Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith beamed following the big mare's 2010 debut performance. "This was a great, great race for her and it wasn't taxing at all. We got enough out of this race to move forward."
"Zenyatta will run in the Apple Blossom regardless," Shirreffs said of the big Street Cry runner. "[She] came back so we could have some fun with her and other fans could see her. That was the whole thing. She'll go back to Hollywood [Park] and get ready for Oaklawn."
"We're just excited that she's back," owner Jerry Moss told HRTV's Millie Ball. "She looks amazing and everybody's happy. We watched [the New Orleans Ladies] in the paddock and I'm sorry [Rachel] lost but she lost to a better horse today and we'll see what happens in the next race."
According to Asmussen, whether that next race will be the Apple Blossom for Rachel Alexandra remains to be determined.
"No crystal ball could see that far ahead. I'm definitely going to be cautious," he said.
Claire Novak has melded her love for human-interest journalism and the
equine breed into a successful turf writing career. Winner of the 2008
Louisville Metro Journalism Award for Sports Writing, she maintains
connections with organizations such as The Associated Press, Blood-Horse
Publications and the NTRA. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, @ClaireNovak.