03/08/2010 1:00AM

Looking past the preps


On Saturday, most horseplayers will be analyzing four of the most important prep races of the year.

In two of those races, the undefeated 6-year-old mare Zenyatta will run in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita, while the 4-year-old 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will run in the 1 1/16-mile New Orleans Ladies at the Fair Grounds. Both horses hardly need an introduction, ranking among the best female racehorses of modern times. Both are, of course, tuning up for their showdown in the $5 million Apple Blossom stakes at Oaklawn Park on April 9.

The other two March 13 prep races - the Rebel at Oaklawn and the San Felipe at Santa Anta - are both scheduled for 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds moving toward the 136th Kentucky Derby. The Rebel is expected to attract juvenile champion Lookin At Lucky.

The San Felipe will have more than a few serious Derby prospects, including the promising Sidney's Candy, plus the horses who finished 1-2-3 in last month's Robert Lewis Stakes: the undefeated Caracortado, the late-running Dave in Dixie, and the speedy American Lion.

Given that the main targets for all of the above horses are races further down the road, their connections must see positive things on Saturday or the next planned stop on the schedule will be in jeopardy. As horseplayers, we are in the same boat, looking beyond our Saturday bets for clues that will firm up our opinions for the target races in April and May.

For instance, if Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta is off her game, her connections probably will back out of the Apple Blossom. On the other hand, we might see signs that will boost our confidence to bet one over the other when they meet.

More is at stake for Zenyatta, who will enter the Santa Margarita with a lifetime unbeaten string of 14 victories. Should she run strongly but lose, she still might head to Oaklawn with that foundation to build upon, but she will drop from the rare ranks of undefeated horses. Considering that her connections were willing to bring her back out of retirement to risk defeat is a testament to their commitment to this sport. But the moment this mare loses - if she loses - their decision will be second guessed throughout the sporting world. Then if Zenyatta were to go on to lose a second race to Rachel Alexandra at Oaklawn, there will be many who will downgrade her standing among the great racemares of modern times.

Aside from the 2009 Horse of the Year title, which can never be taken away from her, there are questions about Rachel Alexandra's physical condition. Consider that she put so much energy into her stirring victory over males in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga last September that she needed months to recover. Consider also the way trainer Steve Assmussen has orchestrated Rachel's workouts at the Fair Grounds since she resumed training on Jan 31. While moving forward, the progression of her works suggest a filly slow to get rolling.

Jan. 31: Four furlongs in 52 on a fast track.

Feb. 6: Four furlongs in 50.60 on a fast track.

Feb. 12: Five furlongs in 1:03.80 on a sloppy track, with splits of 13.40, 26.20, 38.60, 51.60.

Feb. 18: Five furlongs in 1:00.20 on a fast track, with splits of 12, 23.80, 35.60, 47.60.

Feb. 24: Six furlongs in 1:14 on a fast track, with splits of 13, 25.20, 37.60, 49.80, 1:02.

March 2: Six furlongs in 1:13.60 on a fast track, with splits of 13, 25.60, 38.40, 51, 1:02.20.

March 8: Four furlongs in 49 on a fast track, with splits of 25.20 and 37.20, and a five-furlong gallop-out in 1:01.80.

In the important March 2 work, Rachel Alexandra appeared a bit rank early, but she showed a solid late burst of speed and a good gallop-out - 1:26.40 for seven furlongs and out a mile 1:41.20. Although Asmussen openly anticipated "a faster work," he now expects Rachel to take a major step forward on Saturday.

Zenyatta never was taken out of training after her spectacular victory over a good group of male rivals in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Nov. 7. While her moderate November and December works ostensibly were designed to bring her down to earth before retirement, Zenyatta willingly picked up the pace as soon as her connections decided to bring her back for a 2010 campaign. Having won all her races without concern for pace scenarios or her competition, it will be a negative sign if she runs a subpar race in the Santa Margarita. This, after her excellent latest workout on Friday, her fourth straight at six furlongs, clocked and described by one of Southern California's best workout analysts, Bruno DeJulio.

Said DeJulio: "Zenyatta worked in company with El Vino, beginning three [lengths] back, showing surprising speed in 47.20 for the half, before blowing by her workmate with ears pricked. She finished [six furlongs] in 1:11.20, under no pressure at all and galloped out seven furlongs in 1:23.80, before pulling up nicely a mile in 1:38.60 with speed in reserve. She looked outstanding with Mike Smith aboard in one of her best drills."

As for the 3-year-olds, Lookin At Lucky may have two issues to deal with on Saturday. First he needs a good performance to show that he is over the mild issues that interrupted his training in late January. Should he go as expected to Oaklawn for the Rebel, a lot will be learned about his ability to convert his excellent synthetic track form to a dirt surface. Fact is, nothing can be viewed as more important if Lookin At Lucky is going to have a real chance to win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1.

As for Lookin At Lucky's physical condition, Baffert was quite encouraged by the son of Smart Strike's seven-furlong drill in 1:25.20 at Santa Anita on March 1.

"He finished strong," Baffert said. "He's grown up since last fall and he's ready to run."

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas expects his own Derby prospect Dublin to take an important step forward in the Rebel. Following a throat operation this winter, the son of Afleet Alex returned with a good second behind the Baffert-trained front-runner Conveyance in the one-mile Southwest Stakes on Feb. 20. A four-time Derby winner who has maintained a low profile in recent years, Lukas firmly believes Dublin has matured nicely over the winter.

"I loved his Southwest," Lukas said. "Now we'll find out if he is ready to take the next step."

Also expected in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel is Noble's Promise, who finished second to Lookin At Lucky in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Dec. 19.

In the San Felipe, Sidney's Candy adds spice to the trio who dominated the Bob Lewis. An impressive winner at Del Mar last summer, Sidney's Candy flopped in his 2009 finale but returned to top form with a facile win in the seven-furlong San Vicente on Feb 15. Now he will get an acid test in a two-turn race against horses with two-turn experience.

Of the prospective field, Caracortado looked quite smooth winning the Bob Lewis with a steady rally from right behind American Lion and Tiz Chrome, who dueled each other into submission. While a similar pace scenario may develop on Saturday, the horse who caught my eye last month was Dave in Dixie, who lumbered home for second as if he will be an important factor at longer distances later this spring.