Unbeaten champion Zenyatta will spot eight rivals from 12 to 19 pounds when she begins her quest for Horse of the Year honors in 2010 as the prohibitive choice in the $250,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Santa Anita March 13.
Perfect in all 14 of her career starts to date, the magnificent 6-year-old mare begins the new year with a hefty 127-pound weight assignment for her first race since she humbled a stellar field in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 7 to become the first female to win America's richest race.
If she wins again, the anticipation of her expected showdown with 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the proposed $5 million Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park will undoubtedly consume the racing public until the April 9 race.
Zenyatta is 1-9 on the morning line to dispense of a Santa Margarita field that includes last month's impressive La Canada Stakes (gr. II) winner, Striking Dancer, as well as the two fillies who finished immediately behind her, Gripsholm Castle and Floating Heart.
Striking Dancer carries the second highest weight impost of 115 pounds in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Margarita, to be contested over the Pro-ride main track. If all nine start, Zenyatta will break from post 8.
“Zenyatta will leave for Santa Anita tomorrow (March 11) after training, and school Thursday afternoon,” trainer John Shirreffs said from his Hollywood Park headquarters. “She’s doing well and we’re looking forward to the race.”
Jockey Mike Smith said it is time to move on from Zenyatta's stinging defeat at the hands of Eclipse Award voters, who gave the 2009 Horse of the Year award to Rachel Alexandra.
"Well, you know, it’s just something that you got to let go," he said during a national teleconference March 9. "We can't change it. All we can do is go back this year and hope to have a great year again and see what happens. That’s all we’re worried about right now, is just getting her back to this first race Saturday and go from there."
HRTV will present a special one-hour live show March 13 featuring the 2010 debuts of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, who takes on four rivals in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies' Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. The seventh race on the program, the Santa Margarita is set for a 3:36 p.m. post.
Zenyatta, who carried 129 pounds in posting a 2 1/2-length victory in last June's Vanity Handicap (gr. I), breezed six furlongs March 5 at her Hollywood Park headquarters in 1:11.80. The charismatic daughter of Street Cry has earned $5,474,580 for owners Jerry and Ann Moss.
Smith admited he is concerned about the weight.
"Yes, there certainly is (concern), especially when the competition is carrying 111 and, you know, 114 pounds," he said. "Quite a bit of weight to start out the year with. 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.
"And if she gets her opportunity, I think she’s going to run big first time back," Smith added. "I mean she’s really ready. She’s ready for something right now and she’s certainly training like it anyway. And this -- I'm really looking forward to it."
Smith said he "wouldn't be human" if he didn't get nervous about keeping Zenyatta's streak intact. He knows he'll have to deal with an apparent lack of pace in the field, which will make things a little more difficult for his strapping deep closer.
"It’s how you use that energy," he said. "You know, I really enjoy situations like this. It really makes me focus, makes everything slow down for me and I just go out and have fun."
Stevestan Stables' Striking Dancer came from off the pace to register her first stakes score in the 1 1/8-mile La Canada by 1 1/2 lengths at odds of 13-1 Feb. 14. This will be the third Southern California start of the year for the Ken McPeek-trained 4-year-old daughter of Smart Strike .
Striking Dancer, who was previously based in Kentucky, will have Alex Solis aboard once again. They drew post 5.
Pretty Unusual, winner of the El Encino Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 17, was assigned 113 pounds. The California-bred daughter of Unusual Heat gets back on the main track after two tries on the Santa Anita turf. She ran fifth in her most recent effort, the Feb, 15 Buena Vista Handicap (gr. IIT).
Gripshom Castle heads into her second start in the United States off a strong showing in the La Canada at 17-1 odds. Rallying along the inside, she grabbed the lead past the eighth pole but could not hold off Striking Dancer. Triple B Farms' 4-year-old daughter of Dynaformer is trained by Ben Cecil and will have Victor Espinoza in the irons once more. She carries 112 pounds.
Michael Tabor's improving Floating Heart, a daughter of Giant's Causeway trained by Todd Pletcher, also turned in a big effort in the La Canada, overcoming traffic problems to finish third, beaten by two lengths. She'll break from the far outside under Joe Talamo with 111 pounds.
A pair of Jerry Hollendorfer trainees, Dance to My Tune and Pretty Katherine, join Made for Magic and Powerofvoodoo to complete the field.
$250,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I, Race 7, 3:36 p.m.), F&M 4 & Up, 1 1/8 MIles (Synthetic)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Dance to My Tune (ON), M Garcia, 111, J Hollendorfer
2. Pretty Katherine (ON), J Rosario, 111, J Hollendorfer
3. Made for Magic (KY), O A Berrio, 111, A C Avila
4. Pretty Unusual (CA), C Sutherland, 113, B Abrams
5. Striking Dancer (KY), A O Solis, 115, K G McPeek
6. Powerofvoodoo (CA), T Kaplan, 108, B Abrams
7. Gripsholm Castle (KY), V Espinoza, 112, B D Cecil
8. Zenyatta (KY), M E Smith, 127, J A Shirreffs
9. Floating Heart (KY), J Talamo, 111, T A Pletcher