03/13/2010 1:00AM

Game on - Rachel may need this one

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Lou Hodges Jr.
Rachel Alexandra schools in the paddock on Friday at Fair Grounds. If all goes well Saturday, she'll meet Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom on April 9.

NEW ORLEANS - More than six months have passed since Calvin Borel last got that feeling - whatever that feeling is a human being gets from sitting on the back of Rachel Alexandra during a horse race.

If racing fans are itching to see Rachel, the 2009 Horse of the Year, make her first start since the Sept. 5 Woodward Stakes, just think how ready Borel must be.

Wish fulfillment comes Saturday, with Rachel Alexandra set to face four foes in the inaugural running of the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies, a 1 1/16-mile stakes. The 10th of 11 races here, the New Orleans Ladies precedes by about 20 minutes the Santa Margarita at Santa Anita, where Zenyatta's 2010 campaign begins. Both races can be seen live on HRTV and will be streamed live online at NTRA.com. If all goes well, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta will meet April 9 in the Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park.

It's at Oaklawn that Borel winters, and he will fly down to New Orleans on Saturday morning. Borel hasn't worked Rachel Alexandra since she was privately sold and transferred to trainer Steve Asmussen last May, but said he regularly talks to Asmussen and assistant trainer Scott Blasi about her. Borel came here in February and saw Rachel Alexandra for the first time since she left Churchill Downs for New Orleans in late November.

"Man, she looks so big in the right places, in her neck and everything," Borel said. "Believe me, I talk to Steve and Scott, and Scott was telling me yesterday the filly is ready - come here and ride her with confidence."

RELATED NEWS: Rachel vs. Zenyatta

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The New Orleans Ladies hinges on Rachel Alexandra's readiness. Anything close to her best and Rachel wins the race, no questions asked. But things are not so simple Saturday. Poor weather interrupted Rachel Alexandra's training schedule over the winter. She has worked seven times for this comeback, and her most major drill, an in-company six furlongs March 2, didn't unfold ideally. Rachel was timed in 1:13.60, but her connections wanted something faster.

Rachel Alexandra comes into Saturday's race at less than peak fitness, but she will not lack for eagerness. So aggressive did Rachel become in morning training this winter, that Asmussen began equipping her with a figure-eight noseband after Rachel worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 on Feb. 18, a work she began at a blazing tempo. That piece of equipment, which Rachel will race in Saturday, gives a rider more control over a mount pulling hard.

"Her gallops have been not as controlled as last year," Asmussen said. "Right now, we need more control."

So, here is the balancing act: Rachel needs a race to ready for the Apple Blossom, but given her fitness level, the last thing Asmussen wants is a gut-wrenching effort that sets Rachel back.

"We need this to be a stepping-stone and a prep," Asmussen said. "We want a good, physical exertion."

Added Asmussen, "There's going to be a lot in Calvin's hands."

As sharp as Rachel has been in her training, Asmussen said he expects to see her on the lead going into the first turn. Borel feels confident that from there, he can coax Rachel Alexandra to relax.

"She's just a racemare," said Borel. "You've got to let her do her thing. In the afternoon, when the gates break, she'll run a sixteenth of a mile and then she'll let you do what you want."

Rachel Alexandra drew post 2. Inside her is Fighter Wing, who has made the lead in several route races, but might not have the speed to keep up with Rachel. Drawn just outside Rachel Alexandra is Zardana, the first-ever Fair Grounds starter for trainer John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer. Zardana, a Grade 2 winner who hasn't raced on dirt since being imported from Brazil, seems to have ample speed to hound Rachel Alexandra, if that's what is asked of her by noted front-end rider David Flores.

If a fast pace develops, and if Rachel comes up short, the Ladies could fall to Clear Sailing. Clear Sailing already has won three races this meet, and rallied from well behind a dawdling pace capturing a minor stakes Feb. 13. On March 3 at trainer Glenn Delahoussaye's home base, the Evangeline Downs training center, Clear Sailing worked a bullet half-mile that Delahoussaye described as "stunning."

"That's the word that fits," Delahoussaye said. "She did it alone, and under no encouragement. She's really coming into this race excellent."

Clear Sailing, clearly talented, rates as an encouraging prospect, not an established stakes horse. But Delahoussaye knows what time it is: If a horse like his is going to beat Rachel Alexandra, Saturday might be the day.

"The question we all have is, 'How good is she right now?' " Delahoussaye said.

The answer is coming soon enough.