03/15/2010 12:00AM

Apple Blossom returns to Earth

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NEW ORLEANS - Stakes flew furiously forth Saturday, with a series of Kentucky Derby preps mixed with Zenyatta's win in the Santa Margarita Invitational and Rachel Alexandra's loss in the New Orleans Ladies. Sunday morning began slowly and predictably. Zenyatta's camp reveled in her 15th victory without a loss, while at Fair Grounds, Rachel Alexandra's disappointed handlers made tentative plans for her move Monday morning to Oaklawn Park. But by early afternoon the landscape had been remade.

First, trainer Steve Asmussen informed reporters that he and Rachel Alexandra's majority owner, Jess Jackson, had further discussed Rachel Alexandra's status, and that Rachel Alexandra would not be shipping to Arkansas that day after all. A couple of hours later came a press release from Jackson himself: Rachel was out of the Apple Blossom Invitational.

By Monday morning, the new reality had set in. The April 9 Apple Blossom would not be a $5 million race, since the gargantuan purse hinged on both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta competing. The purse reverts to its original level of $500,000, the Apple Blossom will again be a stakes rather than an invitational, and field size no longer is capped at 10. The Apple Blossom remains a nine-furlong race, a change from recent seasons, in which it was contested over 1 1/16 miles.

But gone is the glamour matchup between the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, and the mare many believed should have been Horse of the Year, Zenyatta.

"Naturally, we are disappointed that Rachel Alexandra will not be here for the Apple Blossom Invitational," Oaklawn said in a statement Monday morning. "We look forward to welcoming Zenyatta back to Arkansas as she attempts to equal Cigar's modern-day record of 16 consecutive unrestricted victories."

So, there's still that. Zenyatta's connections have said all along she would seek her second Apple Blossom win, Rachel or no Rachel, and they reaffirmed that position Sunday.

"We were going to go to Oaklawn no matter what," trainer John Shirreffs said.

The difference now is that Shirreffs may need two stalls at Oaklawn, rather than one, since Zardana, Rachel Alexandra's vanquisher at Fair Grounds, also is being pointed toward the Apple Blossom.

"Mr. Zetcher likes to run in the big races," Shirreffs said Sunday, referring to Zardana's owner, Arnold Zetcher.

Zardana, who had won her three previous dirt races, all in Brazil, will remain at Fair Grounds till Thursday, when she ships back to Shirreffs's base at Hollywood Park. The Shirreffs pair would fly to Arkansas three to five days before the race, their trainer said.

Bambera, the Venezuelan-bred superstar who has won 16 of 18 starts, is a possible Apple Blossom runner, with a decision on her status likely coming Tuesday. Other possible runners include My Baby Baby, Striking Dancer, Be Fair, and Just Jenda. Freedom Star, open-lengths winner of the Azeri stakes on March 6 at Oaklawn, is "on the fence" for the Apple Blossom, trainer Bob Baffert said. And the Asmussen stable may yet have an Apple Blossom runner, with War Echo, fifth in the Azeri, also possible.

Asmussen reiterated Monday that Rachel Alexandra had come out of the New Orleans Ladies "in great shape."

"She looks beautiful," he said.

But as of Monday, Rachel Alexandra's 2010 schedule remains entirely up in the air. Asked when Rachel Alexandra might return to the racetrack, Asmussen said he had "no idea."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, Jay Privman, and Mary Rampellini