03/15/2010 9:50PM

The Pollyanna View

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Racehorses rarely fire their best shot first time back from a four- to six-month layoff, and to my eyes none of the three champions who made their season debuts last Saturday did so in either victory (Zenyatta, Lookin at Lucky) or defeat (Rachel Alexandra.) While Rachel's loss scuttled a potential showdown with Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom April 9, I'm going to risk sounding like Pollyanna and take the view that it just might work out better for the rest of the racing season that there may be even better days ahead for all three horses.

Let's start with Lookin at Lucky, who got a little overlooked amid the distaffers. In some ways he faced the toughest task of the three as the only one to have shipped away from his winter quarters to try not only a new track but also a new surface. It was a complete guess as to whether he'd be able to transfer his good synthetic-track form to dirt, but did he ever, overcoming a rough mid-race check to regather himself and prevail in a long stretch drive when he had every right to flatten out. He ran a career-best 97 Beyer, which might seem to contradict that "not firing his very best shot" stuff, but you have to think he will only move forward off his first race since Dec. 19 and with some experience on dirt.

Zenyatta just keeps rolling along with such dominance and reliability that it's almost amazing to think she was going to be retired just seven weeks ago. She didn't have to keep racing to prove something and she doesn't owe anyone anything, but she just keeps making history every time she runs and will only burnish her place in racing's pantheon by continuing to race and adding some dirt triumphs outside of California to her resume. While the Santa Margarita had that patented Zenyatta look to it -- drop back, get into gear, do just as much as you have to and win by a little with complete authority -- her modest running time against unaccomplished rivals suggested that this too was just a first step back with more and better ahead.

As for Rachel Alexandra, she didn't look like quite the filly she was last year but her effort was hardly that of a sour or washed-up horse. At the top of the stretch I thought Zardana was going to slingshot past her and win by daylight, but Rachel fought back pretty nicely for a filly who hadn't been to the races in seven months to lose by less than a length. (If Zardana hadn't been entered and Rachel had won by the 11 1/2-length margin she had over third--place Unforgotten at the finish, it probably would have been off to the Apple Blossom, possibly as the favorite, off what might be being hailed as a brilliant return.)

Let's also not forget that maybe Zardana, who keeps being knocked as a second- or third-stringer in the John Sherriffs armada of fillies, might just be a better horse on dirt than her previous American turf and synthetic form suggests: She hadn't been on dirt since her first three career starts in Brazil three years ago, but she won those three races by a combined 39 lengths:

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What I don't understand about the majority of reaction to Saturday's races is the continuing desire to cast whatever happens with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta this year as an ongoing referendum on last year's Horse of the Year voting. It was an excruciating call between the two of them that could have gone either way, and I can't imagine that those who voted for Rachel Alexandra did so because they thought she would necessarily win a hypothetical race against Zenyatta or was more likely to win her season debut the following year. I still think it's a shame they couldn't split the award, but it's way past time to change the calendar to 2010 and try to enjoy whatever they do this season.


--I wasn't in California, Lousiana or Arkansas for any of the champions' debuts but at Tampa Bay Downs for the biggest day of that track's meet and what is always an entertaining day of racing at very likeable venue. I still can't believe Odysseus got up to win the feature in a commendable effort for his fourth career start, but he's still going to have to step it up another notch to become a serious factor in the classics.

Tampa may dry and drain as quickly as any dirt track I've ever seen. The track was a sea of slop on Friday and it was hard to imagine it would be fast by Saturday but it was. The turf course, on the other hand, was officially labelled "good" but was closer to yielding: The G3 Hillsborough was run over six full seconds off the course record and scratched down to a field of six, with top names Mushka and Lady Shakespeare among the six program scratches. Also, Musket Man was scratched from the five-furlong Tampa Turf Dash, not that anyone understood why he was entered in a five-furlong grass race in the first place.

Between the stakes scratches (2-year-old filly champ She Be Wild was also withdrawn, from the Florida Oaks) and the competition from the stars racing at Fair Grounds, Oaklawn and Santa Anita, I would have taken the under on Tampa's having a bang-up day of business, and I would have lost: Total handle for the 12-race card was $10.8 million, up from $9.1 million in 2009 and $10.2 million in 2008. It probably helped that Aqueduct cancelled its Saturday card, but it was still a strong showing.


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-- I went down a day early in hopes of some beach time, but the rain took care of that until it finally let up Friday night -- just in time for a visit to Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, where greyhounds have been racing since 1925 and monkeys dressed in silks and sequins once rode the dogs. Like most of the greyhound tracks still operating, "alternative gaming" now rules the roost, in this case a brand new poker room that had twice as many patrons as the hound races. Still, there aren't many pleasanter ways to pass a Florida evening than in the company of gryehounds and bettors, and I showed a $4 profit for the evening despite betting only on dogs who look like my housemates Popeye and Dondo.

Getting home from Tampa turned into an ordeal when I arrived at the airport Sunday morning just in time to hear that my flight to JFK had been cancelled and there were no seats to New York until Tuesday. There are far worse places than Tampa to be marooned for a couple of days but I had to get back so I grabbed the last seat on a flight to Boston, rented a car and drove back Sunday night.

Just before they shut the doors on the full flight from Tampa to Boston, a JetBlue agent stepped into the plane. It seems that the passenger I'd nosed out of the last seat really needed to get to Boston and had a proposition. Even though, the agent announced, she knew that a Boston-bound flight was probably a Red Sox stronghold, would anyone give up his seat for Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' ace reliever, who was offering four prime seats to any Yankees-Red Sox game this year in exchange?  There was practically a stampede of passengers trying to be the first to exit, and I flew back across the aisle from the greatest closer in baseball -- and maybe aviation too.