04/08/2010 11:00PM

Even the best can stumble in return


ARCADIA, Calif. - As this is written, Zenyatta was getting ready to scatter another bunch of fillies and mares like a flock of hapless barn sparrows in Friday's Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. This would make her 2 for 2 as a reigning champion this year and, hopefully, looking for a whole lot more to do.

Of course, that is a risky thing to write, since anything short of the rapture can happen in a horse race. But I am also prepared to predict that this weekend, once again, Sunday will follow Saturday, cats and dogs will quarrel, and Phil Mickelson will find a way to fold on the money in the Masters.

Back to the point, not yet made. If Zenyatta strolls, she will stand as the only champ of 2009 to get back in action without a snag through the first act of the season. Consider the others.

Double Eclipse winner Gio Ponti lost in his comeback at Tampa Bay and then lost in the Dubai World Cup. Lookin At Lucky escaped trouble to win the Rebel at Oaklawn but could not pull the same rabbit out of the hat behind Sidney's Candy in the Santa Anita Derby.

At least Lookin At Lucky is doing better than his filly counterpart, She Be Wild, who has come up short in both her 3-year-old races so far. As for sprint champ Kodiak Kowboy, he was retired, no doubt because he was 4 and we needed another stallion. Summer Bird has yet to return from his surgery of last fall. Goldikova, back in action at age 5, has a return date of May 23 in France. And Rachel Alexandra lost. Oh, you heard.

Informed Decision was the most recent titleholder to be rudely greeted by the new year when she finished third in the Vinery Madison at Keeneland on Thursday. The female sprint champion never laid a glove on the front-running winner, Dr. Zic. Jonathan Sheppard, who always hopes for the best but prepares for something less, took a deep breath and decided it was not the end of the world.

"The winner went to the front and was not seriously challenged," Sheppard said the morning after. "Our filly made a nice run, but then just kind of flattened out a bit. She just didn't have that same late surge she usually does. I'm not entirely sure why, but it's probably a matter of just being a little rusty.

"I think maybe I should have zipped her one more work," Sheppard added. "Not that she wasn't fit, but just for the speed. But you don't want to do more than you have to. Maybe I've been reading too many nice articles about what a great mare she is and that she could beat everybody no matter what."

Sheppard has been in the Hall of Fame for 20 years. Last year he trained two champions, including the jumper Mixed Up. To hear him talk, you would think that training Thoroughbred racehorses is far from an exact science. He laughed.

"Trainers pretend it is," Sheppard said. "But then, they need the work. If the owners ever realized it's about 90 percent luck, we'd all be out of business, and training our own horses."

Informed Decision will live to fight another day. Specifically, Kentucky Derby Day, May 1 at Churchill Downs, when she will go for a second straight win in the Humana Distaff.

Meanwhile, out West, Sunday marks the return of a bona fide California star, the Royal Academy mare Gotta Have Her, who was last seen beating all but California Flag in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Gotta Have Her had no end of traffic trouble that day, which was sort of predictable coming as she did from far back in a field of 14 making three turns and crossing a dirt strip while going downhill for most of the 6 1/2 furlongs. She was beaten less than two lengths.

After giving her mare a break at Winner's Circle Ranch in nearby Bradbury, trainer Jenine Sahadi worked around the wet winter at Santa Anita and now has Gotta Have Her ready to roll in the $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap, covering the same terrain as the BC Turf Sprint. Gotta Have Her won the same race last year defeating, among others, Tuscan Evening, pro-tem leader of the West Coast division.

"I've learned from past experience that after they've run the race of their lives, they need time," Sahadi said. "You're always a little hesitant to send them out, but you want to give them a chance to literally be a horse for a while. At the same time, they're a very precious commodity. Give them a little bit of daylight and they just kind of go. So they had very specific instructions when she arrived - a lot of tranquilizer, four bandages, bell boots - because I knew she'd go through a little bucking thing. They did a great job."

Gotta Have Her, owned by Richard and Sue Ann Masson, was once a runaway train, but now she switches off early and comes running. It has taken top efforts from the likes of Vacare, Tuscan Evening, Magical Fantasy, and California Flag to beat her in major events. Leading up to the Breeders' Cup, she took the Palomar and the Ken Maddy, both graded stakes, and now she comes back with even higher expectations attached at the age of 6. Retirement was considered, then dismissed.

"The conversation with my clients went like this," Sahadi said. "You know you're going to breed her, and that she'll live out the rest of her days at your farm in Kentucky. Just like Zenyatta is for the Mosses, Gotta Have Her is part of the family, and the best horse they have ever owned. If she is at the top of her game, and improving dramatically, then why not take a flyer and enjoy her for another year? Then she can go be a mama."