Facing the Giants

If any horse could do it, this one could.

Venezuelan superstar Bambera has been nominated to the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational, and the South American 4-year-old has the potential to take down both 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and 2009 Champion Older Mare Zenyatta in one fell swoop.

She was her country's champion filly two years in a row, and was Venezuela's Horse of the Year in 2009. She has only been beaten twice — as a maiden, when she made the first start of her career against stakes runners, and last June when she finished second by three-quarters of a length. She's won 16 of 18 starts, her latest coming in the Dec. 6 Classico del Caribe. She has developed such a following that Venezuelan racing fans call her "Her Royal Highness."

The daughter of the Irish stallion Water Poet is here in the states, where she's been working steadily at Calder Race Course in preparation for her season debut. She heads a list of ten runners nominated to the Apple Blossom as of Feb. 24. They are, in alphabetical order, Bambera, Black Magic Mamma, Just Jenda, Justwhistledixie, Love To Tell, My Baby Baby, Stardom Bound, Striking Dancer, Sweet Repent, and Unforgotten. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have yet to be nominated.

The Apple Blossom nominations close in just 14 days, and everyone at Oaklawn Park — from owner Charles Cella to the racing secretary on down — has been hustling entries. But the kind of horses they're looking for are not easy to find; mostly because they don't exist at this point in the season.

Weeks ago, when the idea of making the Apple Blossom an invitational was newly-formed, a list was compiled of mares deserving of a place in the starting gate next to Jess Jackson's superfilly and Ann and Jerry Moss's unbeaten Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) victress. It included just about every good female on the track, grade I winners and contenders from the Breeders' Cup, fillies and mares alike. But looking through the runners, a dilemma arose. Many of the top females from last year were retired, and of those that remained on the track, several hadn't done anything since last November.

Consider the field from the 2009 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I). Life is Sweet, the winner, is also trained by Zenyatta's conditioner, John Shirreffs, and is not likely to make the trip to Oaklawn to run against her own stablemate. Third-place finisher Music Note has been retired. So has Cocoa Beach, who finished sixth. Fifth-place finisher Rainbow View hasn't run or worked since November, and same is the case for Lethal Heat, who ran seventh. Of the three remaining — second-place finisher Mushka, fourth-place finisher Proviso, and eighth-place finisher Careless Jewel — Bill Mott trains two of them, and confirmed Feb. 24 that both Mushka and Proviso would be pointed elsewhere for their spring campaigns.

"I couldn't say either one of them is going to the Apple Blossom," he said. "Both have other options ahead."

That leaves Careless Jewel, whose 5-race string of victories last year included a win in the Aug. 22 Alabama Stakes (gr. I) and in the Fitz Dixon Cotillion Stakes at Philadelphia Park in October. But the speedy Tapit filly hasn't raced since that eighth-place finish in the Ladies' Classic last November, which she lost after bolting on the backstretch and opening up a seven-length lead to the final turn. She had her first work back from a winter off on Feb. 15 at Palm Meadows, and a 1/18-mile competition against Rachel and Zenyatta is hardly the desirable place for a season debut.

"We'll nominate to the race," trainer Josie Carroll said. "At this point, we've got time. And then we have some decisions we'll have to make."

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It isn't as if the trainers of top horses are in a rush to compete against the two champions. It has been difficult enough for racing secretaries and stakes coordinators at Fair Grounds and Santa Anita to fill the March 13 returns of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Attracting competitive runners to a race featuring the two together is an almost insurmountable task.

What attracts horsemen from all over is the prospect of the purse; $5 million provided Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta both start, 50% to the winner, 20% to second, 10% to third, 6% to fourth, 4% to fifth, and 2% for sixth through 10th. That's what draws the guy who has the horse that ran second to the horse that ran second to Rachel Alexandra. But leading trainers are more skeptical, because it's a solid payday that might not happen. If either Rachel or Zenyatta fails to start, the Apple Blossom's conditions revert to what they were before the race was made an invitational — $500,000 purse, not restricted to 10 starters, preference given to horses with the highest earnings outside of restricted races.

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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When nominations close on March 10, Oaklawn will choose eight runners deserving of an invitation. Those invitations will be extended on March 24, and accepting owners must make a $5,000 pre-entry fee by 2:00 p.m. EST on March 26. For each invitation that is turned down, an alternate horse will be selected and invited.

It's a tough category to fill, fillies and mares going long on the dirt. It's always one of the toughest categories to fill, even in little stakes races, let alone a grade I featuring what many consider to be the best two racemares in the country. But if any racetrack can do it, Oaklawn can.

And one thing's for sure. The fans will come to watch two great runners lay it down on the line. The rest of the field, hopefully, will consist of nice mares. And if the race goes off as planned, it'll be the biggest event in Arkansas since Bill Clinton's inauguration.

Now what racehorse owner wouldn't want to get a piece of that action?

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.