Rachel Alexandra ready for rematch with Zardana

Filly will look for revenge in La Troienne stakes race

April 30, 2010|By The Baltimore Sun

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — — Typically, the biggest race at Churchill Downs other than the Kentucky Derby is the Kentucky Oaks, which is held the Friday before the Derby and features the best 3-year-old fillies in the country. Rachel Alexandra won the Oaks by more than 20 lengths a year ago, a performance that persuaded her new owners to enter her in the Preakness two weeks later.

This year, the Oaks is still a big draw, but Rachel Alexandra's presence in the La Troienne, a race held hours before the Oaks, is threatening to be the most exciting race before the Derby.

That's because Rachel, the 2009 Horse of the Year, will get a rematch against Zardana, the only horse to defeat her. Zardana won the New Orleans Ladies in March when Rachel looked out of shape and slow.

That performance led to the decision by Rachel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, to pull her from a much-anticipated matchup against undefeated Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom in Hot Springs, Ark., in April.

"Everything happens for a reason," Asmussen said. "I don't think we're meant to understand everything when it happens, but we're very blessed that she came out of that race healthy and that we have the opportunity we have [in the La Troienne]. For whatever reason, it didn't happen."

Asmussen gave Rachel Alexandra time to get back in shape and thinks she'll be ready to bounce back on the same track where she had her greatest performance.

"I thought she just looked tremendous," Asmussen said Thursday. "You walk up to her in her paddock and you realize she knows everything that she's done, and she doesn't blink from it. Witness what she did last year and we're amazed with how she did it, but for her to mentally handle it and not let it be overwhelming I think speaks volumes about who she is and how tough she is on the inside."

Zardana is actually a stablemate of Zenyatta's and is trained by the same trainer, John Shirreffs. Shirreffs said he's looking forward to seeing Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta face off someday, but for now, he's focused on getting Zardana ready for the rematch.

"Zardana is like a pit bull," Shirreffs said. "She tries very hard."

He did, however, acknowledge the impact Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra have had on racing over the past year. On the Internet, fans of both horses have been furiously debating over the past year which one is better.

"I've met a lot of people who have expressed how much those two fillies have meant to them, which in turn has brought other people to the game," Shirreffs said.

The La Troienne goes off at 1:26 p.m. today.

True long shots

Think about this for a second. What would be a bigger upset: a Kentucky Democrat winning a U.S. Senate seat held for 12 years by a popular Republican, or a long-shot horse with Louisville connections winning the Derby?

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway is trying to pull off both.

Conway, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat opening up with the retirement of Jim Bunning, is the co-owner of Stately Victor, a 30-1 long shot running in this week's 136th Kentucky Derby.

"They're both pretty big honors," Conway said. "Throw in a 9-month-old daughter, and we've been pretty busy this spring."

Conway shares ownership of Stately Victor with his father, F. Thomas Conway, a Louisville attorney who got his son hooked on horse racing at a young age. Stately Victor is their only thoroughbred.

"He used to make me memorize every Kentucky Derby winner from about 1940 on," Conway said. "And when I was 7 years old, he'd trot me out at cocktail parties and have me name them."

It's a bit of an upset that the Conways are even in the race. Stately Victor, named after one of Jack Conway's best friends who died in a car accident at age 23, was a surprise winner in the Blue Grass Stakes, giving the horse enough graded stakes earnings to make the field.

He'll be ridden by jockey Alan Garcia, who rode Da'Tara, a 38-1 long shot, to a wire-to-wire victory in the 2008 Belmont Stakes.

"After so many years of watching my dad get misty-eyed when the owners make that walk [from backside to the paddock], we're going to make that walk together," Conway said. "That's very special."

It could be Awesome

Not sold on either Lookin At Lucky or Sidney's Candy thanks to their troublesome bookend post positions? You might want to take a long look at Awesome Act, trained by Englishman Jeremy Noseda.

Awesome Act didn't run particularly well in his last start, a third-place finish at the Wood Memorial, but he threw a shoe early in the race and still battled to hit the board. He wasn't in great physical shape either, and was unable to completely bounce back after running a perfect race in the Gotham Stakes. Noseda believes he's in shape now.

"Definitely, without question, the horse looks to have moved forward physically since he was in New York," said Noseda, unable to get to Louisville until Wednesday because of travel restrictions caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland. "I'm happy with his condition."

The son of American dirt specialist Awesome Again, Awesome Act has the pedigree to run well in the mud. Current conditions are calling for thunderstorms.

"He's got great cruising speed and he's got a big kick in him at the end of a race," Noseda said. "My big query at this point is how effective he'll be at a mile and a quarter. Saturday will tell us that. But there are plenty of horses that have the same question to answer. You need luck in the running. Is that not what makes the Kentucky Derby such a unique race and such a test for a horse?"

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