Apple Blossom Diary: March 1 - 9

March 1 – The first NTRA poll of the year is out and Zenyatta tops the list with eight first-place votes and 150 points, while Rachel Alexandra managed five first-place votes and 145 points. You don’t often see the returning Horse of the Year fail to earn the No. 1 slot in the first poll, especially with neither horse having raced this year.

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A reader of this diary from Venezuela sent the links to most of Bambera’s races in Venezuela, as well as the Clasico del Caribe in Puerto Rico, her most recent start. Here are some observations after watching her in action.
The first thing that caught my eye was that her running style is almost identical to Rachel’s, tracking or setting the pace and then distancing herself from her opponents about two-thirds of the way around the far turn. But when she pulls away she is being ridden more aggressively than Rachel is. In the Clasico del Caribe, she was put to pressure on the turn, losing the lead, and had to be pushed by the rider to regain it. She does, however, win most of her races by large margins and is usually under wraps at the wire. What could make her all the more dangerous is that she has shown on a consistent basis she doesn’t mind mixing it up early.

Unlike Rachel, she often has trouble changing leads, and has won major races at 10 and 12 furlongs without ever changing leads, which actually says a lot about her. She also has shown a tendency to take herself wide at the top of the stretch, but not on a regular basis. Finally, like Rachel, she has the ability to manhandle the boys. All in all, she is one intriguing filly, and if she is as good as she looked on the videos, she could make things even more interesting than they already are, especially entertaining Rachel on or near the lead.

 

Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta: Get the latest on the road to the Apple Blossom.

March 2 – Rachel Alexandra worked this morning, breezing six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 at 10:30, after training hours were over. Asmussen had said earlier this was to be her most serious work, but it didn’t seem to be that much more serious than her last work, when she breezed in 1:14, except for the fact she worked this time in company, blowing past her workmate in the final furlong and finishing six lengths in front.

Although Asmussen admitted he was hoping for a faster work, he was happy with the way Rachel came home her final quarter in :22 3/5 and final eighth in :11 1/5. She galloped out a strong seven furlongs in 1:26 2/5 and pulled up a mile in 1:41 1/5.

“We’re happy with where she’s at,” Asmussen said. “The main thing is she’s healthy and this is a step in the process to getting her back to her previous level.”

Asmussen said Rachel will have an easy half-mile blowout on March 8 as her final work before the New Orleans Ladies. “We built up to this point and from here we need to back off and let her catch her breath,” he said. “We won’t be looking for speed, just fluid and relaxed.”

Watching the work online, it was not your typical Rachel work. She normally gets a bit keyed up before a work, but she was really jumping out of her skin galloping to the pole, equipped for the first time with either a figure-8 or drop noseband (couldn't see from the photo), which helps keep the mouth closed and prevents a horse from playing too much with the bit. Rachel, as usual, was full of herself galloping to the pole, and more headstrong than usual early in the work. Having a workmate also was new to her. Throughout the work, she had her head cocked to the outside and switched back to her left lead in mid-stretch. Dominic Terry, who had thrown a cross on her turning for home, was looking down at something off to the right. This wasn’t as smooth a work as her previous one.

Terry finally was able to get her to change back to her right lead and she finished up smoothly. To her credit, she still managed to come home her final quarter in :22 3/5. She cut the corner beautifully, as she always does, and galloped out strong, with Terry flicking her on the shoulder with his whip hand. The question is how far is she from being ready to tackle Zenyatta, from both a mental and fitness standpoint? You have to remember, she went almost five months without a work, and by not having a handily work she definitely needs to get something out of her prep and has to show she hasn’t lost anything from last year.

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The Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta trading cards order was increased from 50,000 to 100,000 and it proved to be a wise move, judging from the size of the crowd that lined up outside the Hot Springs Visitor Center on this chilly morning, with stiff winds and temperatures in the 30s.

They began arriving at 7 a.m. for the 10 o’clock giveaway, and within an hour there were about 250 people on line, some of whom had brought blankets and chairs. By 9 a.m., the line had stretched all the way around the Visitor Center, with more people still coming. Each person received one card of each horse.

The workload is beginning to pick up in the media department with the large number of credential requests that are now pouring in, some from as far away as Japan and Turkey.

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A new wrinkle has been added to the New Orleans Ladies, as John Shirreffs announced he will send his Brazilian-bred 6-year-old, Zardana, to Fair Grounds to take on Rachel. A winner of seven of her 18 career starts, Zardana won the grade II Bayakoa at Hollywood Park Dec. 5, and in her only start this year finished fourth in the grade I Santa Maria Handicap, beaten 4 3/4 lengths by St. Trinians. Zardana does have good tactical speed and won’t make it easy for Rachel.

Shirreffs said in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “Mr. (Arnold) Zetcher, who is the owner of Zardana, suggested that we run her at the Fair Grounds, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Shirreffs and Zetcher realize there likely will be repercussions from their decision from conspiracy theorists who no doubt will feel Zardana is running to soften up Rachel by making her run hard in her first start back since early September.

“I said to Mr. Zetcher, ‘Oh no, here we go,’” Shirreffs was quoted in the Times-Picayune. But his explanation is that the only race in California for Zardana is the Santa Margarita, and that, obviously, is not an option with Zenyatta in there.

Speaking of Shirreffs, Life is Sweet’s owners, Pam and Marty Wygod, have officially accepted the invitation to the Dubai World Cup, so she definitely is going, and Shirreffs likely will be heading there as well. The reason for him tearing himself away from Zenyatta is simple, according to Dottie: “Life is Sweet LOVES JOHN.”

 

March 3 – Heard from Dottie again today. She had great news that Bobby Frankel’s longtime assistant, Ruben Loza, is now working for John, as is Frankel’s top groom, J.L. (Chummo), who rubbed Medaglia d’Oro, Sightseek, Intercontinental, Champs Elysees, and Ventura just to name a few. “It is so much fun to see them there, settled in, happy, and rebuilding their own lives,” Dottie said.

She added, “Depending on the weather, Zenyatta is to breeze Friday or Saturday....but the rain is due...so not sure of the adjustments John will need to make. One computer in his office has weather reports coming up constantly to keep us up-to-date on the forecast.”

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You gotta love this one: “WANT TO TRADE NORTHWOODS CABIN for APPLE BLOSSOM LODGING: I have a charming cabin on Spider Lake in Hayward, Wisconsin (Class A Muskie Lake). Beautiful Northwoods location, great fishing, charming cabin filled with antiques/vintage! 2 bedrooms, sleeping loft, 1 bath, fireplace, boat and dock. Am looking to trade/ba...rter 1 week at my cottage for lodging the 8th, 9th, and 10th of April in Hot Springs. Pictures available! Message me if interested! GO ZENYATTA!

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Another challenger for Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies will be the lightly raced 4-year-old, Clear Sailing, who has made only four career starts, winning her last three, including a neck score in the 1 1/16-mile Pelleteri Stakes. In her two prior victories, she romped by 8 3/4 lengths in a mile and 40-yard allowance race, in which she led every step of the way, and won a six-furlong maiden race by 4 1/4 lengths. All three victories have come at Fair Grounds, so we know she loves the track. It’s looking as if Rachel could have as many as eight or nine opponents.

 

March 4 – With more rain expected in Southern California over the weekend (does it ever rain on weekdays out there?), one can’t help but look ahead to next weekend when Zenyatta is scheduled to make her 2010 debut in the Santa Margarita. Shirreffs, who always takes everything in stride, isn’t fretting about it.

"There aren’t any concerns; none at all,” he said. “Generally speaking, March is not a big month for a lot of rain out here, and that’s out of our control, anyway. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. But even if we don’t get a prep, she’d be ready without a doubt. Did you see her race in the Milady after, what, a nine month layoff? There’s really not much worry.”

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The Venezuelan sensation, Bambera, who has been receiving a great deal of publicity lately, had today’s scheduled work at Calder postponed until tomorrow to accommodate jockey Javier Castellano.  

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Quotes from Jess Jackson in the New York Times:

“We are stretching to get there. But if we’re not in top shape, we’re not going.”

“If they (Zenyatta) beat us in one race, they might just disappear and retire her undefeated.”

“I think they are trying to size us up. It makes sense for them (to run Zardana at Fair Grounds). They want to catch us short.”

“I’m not afraid to lose, but it’s not going to do Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra any good if either one of them are not at their best.”

Interesting and revealing comments. By the way, when Jackson says “they” and “them” in his Zardana comment, only Shirreffs has a connection to Zenyatta and it was not his idea to run her at Fair Grounds.

 

March 5 – Zenyatta had the work Steve Asmussen apparently was looking for with Rachel, drilling a sharp six furlongs in a bullet 1:11 4/5 handily at Hollywood Park this morning, the fastest of 13 works at the distance. She came home her final quarter in :23 4/5. Her stablemate, Life is Sweet, who is bound for Dubai, also was sharp, going her six furlongs in 1:12 3/5.

Shirreffs said in Daily Racing Form of Zenyatta’s work: “It always amazes me how good she looks; how she glides over the ground. She’s picture perfect. She looks like she’s on top of her game right now.”

Mike Smith added: “I know it sounds funny, but I really think she’s getting better. She seems more and more focused and she couldn’t be doing any better.”

Zenyatta likely will van to Santa Anita Thursday afternoon.

Shirreffs said that Arnold Zetcher, owner of Zardana, is hoping to run his filly back in the Apple Blossom after she takes on Rachel in the New Orleans Ladies. It looks as if Shirreffs now has two owners who have no hesitation about running their filly against Zenyatta. Last year, it was the Wygods who attempted it three times, and now Zetcher is gung-ho to run against Zenyatta, and Rachel twice.

It was a busy morning, as Bambera breezed six furlongs in 1:14 at Gulfstream. Just as a point of interest, Careless Jewel is beginning to pick up her training, working five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 at Palm Meadows. But she’s still too far behind to be ready for Oaklawn.

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Calvin Borel on Facebook: “A little over a week remains until Rachel makes her debut in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds! The anticipation is tough, but I waited 28 years for her, so what’s nine more days?”

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It looks as if the Apple Blossom will be televised by ESPN2 at 7 p.m. EST.

 

March 6 – Let’s see where Rachel and Zenyatta are at from a fitness standpoint. By the time Rachel had her first work in nearly five months, an easy :52 breeze, Zenyatta already had five works in her, four of them while “retired,” and two of them at five furlongs. And she ran two months later into the year than Rachel. Since then, Zenyatta has had five works in 31 days, and Rachel has had five works in 25 days, so it is apparent that Rachel has been cramming her works into a tighter schedule in order to play catch-up. Zenyatta has been working basically every eight days, while Rachel has been working every six days.

All we can do is go by Asmussen’s comment after Rachel’s last work: “We’re happy with where we’re at.”

Rachel schooled in the paddock before the seventh race today after having an exceptionally strong gallop this morning, according to the Fair Grounds clocker. When she schools again next week, they will let the people know about it. Today’s schooling went unannounced. “This was a little dress rehearsal for the dress rehearsal,” Asmussen said in the Times-Picayune.

Although Asmussen said Rachel’s gallops have been strong, he admitted she is not 100% for next Saturday’s race. “We’re very aware of that,” he said. “I am very concerned about her fitness level.”

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Has none other than Bob Baffert entered the Apple Blossom picture? Could be after Freedom Star’s wire-to-wire, 3 3/4-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri Stakes; Oaklawn’s prep for the Apple Blossom. The Santa Anita shipper is another pure speed horse who has been on the lead in her last five races. It looks as if the Apple Blossom sure won’t be lacking for pace.

 

March 7 – Calvin Borel’s wife, Lisa, is gearing up for next Saturday, and she shared her feelings about Rachel and the Apple Blossom.

“I have not felt that twist in my gut yet; that settling feeling of overwhelming helplessness that always comes when Rachel runs and I can’t get out there and run alongside of her, protecting her and lifting her up and safely across the finish line -- in front, of course. However, I think the only thing that will keep me sane, and Calvin as well, is knowing that this filly came through for him the one time it really mattered for Calvin -- at the Preakness. She validated Calvin’s choice and from that day on she’s owed us nothing.

“So, yes, we would love for her to win against Zenyatta. It would be the ultimate confirmation to the world that she is what we know she is, but is so hard to explain. She has done so much for us already I feel greedy wanting anything more than for her to run and enjoy herself. If she wins we will be overjoyed, but a loss will take nothing away from her in our hearts and minds. All I would have to do is think back to that day in Baltimore -- when I could see her struggling, but somehow finding enough to get there -- and it would be really hard for me to say she let me down, or to be disappointed in any way.

“I just want both mares to come out of the race in good form -- happy and healthy and ready to fight another day. I’ve found that it is very hard to realize the magnitude of what is about to happen while it is happening or before. I've discovered that in this game you need at least a year after the fact to sit back and take it all in and put everything in perspective. The pressure can take away all of your perspective.

“Calvin does not let pressure disturb him. He goes out there and does his job, not thinking about anything but getting them across the line first. He is really excited to get out there and show everyone that Rachel is Rachel, just as Zenyatta is Zenyatta. Both are tremendous mares, but only one can come out on top. Calvin thinks he has a pretty good idea who it will be.”

Lisa, a former exercise rider, feels Saturday’s New Orleans Ladies will help put some deep fitness into Rachel, and give her a chance to “work out the kinks and get the butterflies under control,” as well as getting her into the routine of going to the paddock, being saddled, and loading into the gate. And finally, “Listening to Calvin and settling in off the pace; all those things that would be difficult to re-establish in the kind of atmosphere the Apple Blossom will undoubtedly produce.”

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Zenyatta was assigned top weight of 127 pounds for Saturday’s Santa Margarita. From the list of nominees, she is conceding from eight to 19 pounds. Second highweight is the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Tuscan Evening at 119 pounds. Last year’s Spinster winner and Breeder’s Cup Ladies Classic runner-up Mushka would be getting 11 pounds at 116. Kenny McPeek has two nominated – Striking Dancer at 115 and My Baby Baby at 113. And Todd Pletcher has nominated Floating Heart at 111 pounds.

 

March 8 – Rachel had her final work for the New Orleans Ladies this morning, blowing out a half-mile in :49, going her opening quarter in :25 1/5 and final quarter in :23 4/5, galloping out a strong five furlongs in 1:01 4/5. This was a smoother and more professional work than her last. Asmussen said it was just an easy half, and he felt “she went beautiful” and “went over the racetrack very well.”

Rachel drew post 2 in the five-horse field for Saturday’s New Orleans Ladies. Zardana is just outside her in post 3. Fighter Wing, who set the pace in the Pelleteri, will break from the rail, and could give Rachel something to run at. Pelleteri winner Clear Sailing has the 5-post. Those two, along with stakes winner Unforgotten, will be getting six pounds from Rachel (123-117). Zardana carries 121.

As for the conspiracy theories, including Jackson’s, that Zardana is being shipped to Fair Grounds to “size up Rachel” and “catch her short,” it could be that Zardana’s presence will actually help Rachel in the long run. Let’s say, with Zardana in there, Rachel will have to work harder to win by a couple of lengths. Without Zardana, let’s say Rachel wins off by herself and never raises a sweat. Which scenario would compromise her chances more for the Apple Blossom? Many would think Rachel needs to be tested to some degree following a seven-month layoff, and Zardana could be the one to do it. Of course, you don’t want a gut-wrencher that could knock her out, but would another of Rachel’s typical cakewalks help prepare her to face Zenyatta? It’s at least something to think about.

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Hotel change: We’re out of the Austin Hotel and into the Comfort Suites – newer and closer to the track. It’s good to know people.

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From a Facebook friend from Spain: “Rachel is trembling with fear...Zenyatta is trembling with fear...BAMBERA to conquer USA…Jajajaja (which translates to hahaha).
“VIVA BAMBERA! Canonero’s history repeats???”

 

March 9 – A field of five or six is expected to be drawn tomorrow for the Santa Margarita.

Mike Smith said of Zenyatta’s weight assignment on today’s NTRA teleconference, “It’s a lot of weight to spot them starting off the year, but fortunately for us she’s a big mare and carries her weight very well, so, hopefully, it won’t bother her too much. She’s ready for something and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Speaking of the teleconference, NTRA’s Eric Wing informed the media that, “Unfortunately, repeated attempts to get someone from the Rachel Alexandra camp failed.”

Well, this is it. In four days we'll know if Hot Springs will be boiling over on April 9. Saturday no doubt will be the longest day for Charles Cella, who will be like Florenz Ziegfeld watching the final rehearsals for his most ambitious and grandiose stage spectacle. Only after the rehearsals will Cella be confident “The Greatest Show on Turf” will open with all the glitz and pageantry everyone has been expecting.

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