04/01/2008 12:00AM

In fourth start, Zenyatta meets champ

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The undefeated Zenyatta put away a pair of Grade 1 winners in her third start last out. Saturday, she has her sights set on a champion.

Zenyatta figures to start as second choice to Ginger Punch, the champion older filly or mare of 2007, when she makes her Grade 1 debut in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares will share a card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. The races open the 35th annual Racing Festival of the South, when 11 stakes worth a cumulative $2.8 million will be run over the final six days of the meet.

The 4-year-old Zenyatta is undefeated and untested, her latest win coming in the Grade 2 El Encino at Santa Anita on Jan. 13, which she won by 1 3/4 lengths over Grade 1 winners Tough Tiz's Sis and Romance Is Diane. She faces her biggest task to date Saturday when she takes on Ginger Punch, the winner of last year's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"We're going to have to face her eventually," said Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta with his wife, Ann. "We might as well face her now, when our filly's feeling good and when she's ready to run. If Ginger Punch beats us, well, then right now she's better than us. That's all."

In addition to Zenyatta, the Mosses also own Tiago, whom they are sending in for the Oaklawn Handicap.

Zenyatta began her career last November at Hollywood Park, late in her 3-year-old year, and was sharp enough to close from 12th and win a maiden race going 6 1/2 furlongs. Zenyatta proceeded to win a first-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park in her second start, on Dec. 15. In the El Encino, she was favored and ran 1 1/16 miles on a synthetic track in 1:40.60, earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 94.

"She's progressed quickly in the caliber of races that she's participated in," said John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta. "She's just a really, very, very talented filly. She has a beautiful way of going, and a big stride, and she finishes very strongly."

Moss purchased Zenyatta for $60,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in September 2005.

"She's a nice, big, strapping filly, and it was sort of love at first sight when we saw her in the sale," said Moss, who co-founded and sold A&M Records and is the current chairman of Almo Sounds. "We were just lucky to get her for kind of a reasonable price."

Zenyatta's pedigree had not yet emerged when the Mosses purchased her. She is a daughter of Street Cry, the sire of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense. Her dam is Vertigineaux, whose most prominent offspring, the millionaire Balance, did not make her first start until October 2005. Balance would go on to win three Grade 1's, the Las Virgenes, Santa Anita Oaks, and Santa Margarita.

Zenyatta is a sizable filly who needed time to develop, and Moss and Shirreffs were patient in getting her to the races. Shirreffs estimates she now stands about 16-3 hands tall and weighs just under 1,200 pounds.

"She had some delays in her training," he said. "We had to stop and give her time and wait till she matured a little bit more. So, that's just a result of that, really. She didn't have any real problems, she just had little glitches along the way."

The Apple Blossom will be Zenyatta's first start since January, due in large part to her training being compromised during a wet spell in California. Shirreffs had two graded stakes penciled in for her following the El Encino - the Feb. 10 La Canada and the March 9 Santa Margarita.

"The two races we had planned on running in out here we weren't able to, mostly because of the weather," said Shirreffs. "For a big, heavy horse, if you can imagine a waterlogged track, they always need a firm bottom or they just sink into it. It just wasn't working."

Zenyatta was entered in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita, but ultimately was scratched.

"She had some little problems, and John decided not to run," said Moss. "Now she's coming into a nice period. She seems to be training extremely well. We're excited about seeing her run again."

Zenyatta was named for "Zenyatta Mondatta," the third album by A&M recording artists The Police. She will be making her first start on conventional dirt and first start outside of California in the Apple Blossom.

"I don't think surface should be an issue," said Shirreffs. "Probably the thing that she's going to experience for the first time will be the kickback. She hasn't had dirt in her face and she comes from off the pace, so she's going to get some of that. So that's always a big learning experience for a horse."

Mike Smith will be aboard Zenyatta for the first time Saturday, because her regular rider, David Flores, has a commitment to ride El Gato Malo in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby the same day. Smith, who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby for the Mosses and Shirreffs aboard Giacomo, worked Zenyatta six furlongs in 1:13.40 at Hollywood Park on March 26.

Moss and Shirreffs are looking forward to an exciting season with Zenyatta. The upcoming series for fillies and mares at Hollywood Park is on her agenda, while her ultimate goal is the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita. She takes on last year's winner Saturday.