04/08/2010 12:00AM

Cella still looking forward


ARCADIA, Calif. - Charles Cella dined Wednesday night with Ann and Jerry Moss, enjoying the fine Arkansas cuisine, but no doubt spending time at some point in the meal chewing on the nagging question, "What might have been?"

This was supposed to be racing's greatest hour, the week that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra finally came together, for a $5 million Apple Blossom purse at Oaklawn Park guaranteed by track boss Cella himself. After expressing his initial intentions to compete, owner Jess Jackson pulled Rachel Alexandra out of the race following her narrow loss in the New Orleans Ladies. On the day the Apple Blossom was to be run, Rachel Alexandra could be found at Churchill Downs, training for a race that has yet to be announced.

That left Cella stuck with just Zenyatta and the Mosses for Friday's event, which is kind of like inviting the Rat Pack and having only Sinatra show up. Life goes on, with style.

"I still try to wake up with a grin every day," a disappointed Cella said Thursday morning from his Oaklawn office. "I think it's really a loss for racing, but I don't look back. When I rethink the process, I think maybe Rachel's connections had a spigot of amnesia. I mean, it was on and off, on and off. Of course, had Rachel been just a little swifter in her race, she would have been here.

"But I don't train my horses, and I'm sure as hell not going to train somebody else's horses. I thought our concept was sound, and we wanted to put on the show. I truly hope somebody else does and steps up to the plate.

"I've said all along, though," Cella added, "after watching Zenyatta come back at Santa Anita as a 6-year-old carrying 127, I think we got the champ. And she sure looks the part. I've seen her every morning this week, and what a grand-looking animal."

Cella's Oaklawn Park meeting wraps up Saturday with the traditional running of the Arkansas Derby, which will be covered nationally as part of an NBC package with the Blue Grass Stakes from Keeneland. Whether or not the Apple Blossom was going to get serious network coverage had both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra been involved was rendered moot. Now, Zenyatta will be seen live by only her traditional television audience, which means HRTV.

(By quick calculations, Zenyatta has been seen exactly four times by a network television audience - twice in Breeders' Cup events and twice in the Lady's Secret during the Oak Tree meet leading up to the Cup. As stated here before, no great horse has been seen by fewer viewers in the television age of horse racing. Point fingers where you may.)

Cella was asked if there had been any thought of shifting the Apple Blossom to Saturday, in the wake of Rachel Alexandra's defection, if only to expose Zenyatta to a broader audience. Oaklawn certainly wasn't obligated, but it would have been nice.

"I wish we'd have thought of that earlier," Cella said. "We might have done that. On the other hand, I've been told we did not have a landslide of cancellations for Apple Blossom Day. There's talk of a crowd of fifty or sixty thousand on Friday."

A similarly huge throng will gather for the Arkansas Derby, a race that has been the single most significant indicator of success in Triple Crown events over the past decade. Three different Arkansas Derby winners - Curlin, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones - have accounted for a Kentucky Derby, a Belmont, and three runnings of the Preakness. The only major springtime events that come close are the Wood Memorial - with winners Fusaichi Pegasus taking the Derby and Empire Maker the Belmont - and the Santa Anita Derby, whose 2001 winner Point Given won the Preakness and the Belmont.

By contrast, the Blue Grass Stakes has been a non-factor in Triple Crown success for nearly two decades - long before the Keeneland surface went synthetic. To find a Blue Grass winner who captured a Derby, Preakness, or Belmont, it is necessary to rachet all the way back to Strike the Gold, in 1991, and Summer Squall the year before.

Even before the turning of the new millenium, the Arkansas Derby had established itself as a race won by potentially classic colts. Between 1980 and 1999, there was Belmont winner Temperence Hill, Derby winner Sunny's Halo, Preakness winners Tank's Prospect and Pine Bluff, and Belmont winner Victory Gallop. During that stretch, classic winners Grindstone, Lil E. Tee, Gate Dancer, and Caveat also hit the board in Arkansas. This year's field will be topped by Noble's Promise, Super Saver, and Dublin.

"I don't think our race is as powerful as it has been the last couple of years," Cella said. "But we might have some sleepers in there. This time of year, who knows?"

Cella was speaking from recent experience. As a consolation to losing the Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra showdown, he was hoping his colt Dryfly, winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, would be good enough to compete in the Arkansas Derby or at some point along the Triple Crown trail. Alas, that was not meant to be.

"Dryfly has a slight stress fracture they operated on," Cella said. "So he'll be back, maybe around July."

Did anyone mention that this is a tough game? Cella and his track could have been on top of the sports world, competing head-to-head on Friday with the Masters and the opening week of the baseball season for legitimate attention. Now, Cella must be content with merely being on top of his own world, and try to forget what might have been.