03/07/2008 1:00AM

Nashoba's Key vs. Zenyatta - maybe

Benoit & Associates
Nashoba's Key will be reunited with jockey Garrett Gomez when she tries the main track in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Despite the apparent dominance of Nashoba's Key in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap on Sunday at Santa Anita, the biggest concern leading up to the $300,000 race was the status of lightly raced Zenyatta.

"Is she running?" asked Nashoba's Key's trainer, Carla Gaines.

"Is John Shirreffs running his filly?" asked Double Trouble's trainer, Bobby Frankel.

Does it matter if Zenyatta runs? Apparently, yes. Because after crushing victories in her first three starts, including a Grade 2, Zenyatta has created quite a stir. And even though the Santa Margarita would be her first Grade 1 and first try at 1 1/8 miles, Zenyatta might be this good.

But will she run? Zenyatta had an unspecified minor setback following her most recent start on Jan. 13, her recent workout pattern has been imperfect, and late Friday morning, Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, was still on the fence.

"She's entered, and we'll see how she goes" Saturday, Shirreffs said.

Pending another good gallop, Shirreffs expects to start her Sunday with David Flores aboard.

But is Zenyatta fit enough?

"I think so, and it looks like a mile and an eighth should suit her very well," Shirreffs said.

Jerry and Ann Moss own Zenyatta, who casts a long shadow.

Eight fillies and mares entered the Santa Margarita; the field will be smaller. Down will scratch and wait for an allowance, according to Frankel, whose Grade 1 winner Double Trouble will start. Say You Will entered, but trainer Eoin Harty said she would run under only one condition - if Zenyatta does not start.

Sweet Belle and Good Mood appear outclassed; Grade 2 La Canada Stakes winner Dawn After Dawn figures to start as the distant third choice in a race that most perceive as a two-horse contest between Nashoba's Key and Zenyatta.

With or without Zenyatta, Nashoba's Key should be favored when she is reunited with the jockey that got her started. Garrett Gomez rode Nashoba's Key to victory her first three starts against California-breds, but he had commitments in the East when Nashoba's Key moved up in class last June, and Joe Talamo took over.

Nashoba's Key won four graded stakes under Talamo before the bubble burst. She was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf while racing on a rail perceived as the slowest part of the course. And in her most recent start, Jan. 26 in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, Gaines thought Talamo should have kept Nashoba's Key closer to the pace. She finished second.

Two losses were reason enough for a rider switch, and Gomez reacquainted himself with the 5-year-old by riding Nashoba's Key in her last two workouts.

"It was nice to have Garrett get back in the saddle," Gaines said. "She's a difficult horse to breeze because she can get going too fast."

Owned and bred by Warren Williamson, Nashoba's Key has won 7 races and $1,072,090 from 9 starts. She is drawn outside and carries top weight of 122 pounds. The Santa Margarita will be the first start on the Santa Anita main track for Nashoba's Key, but as Gaines recognized, the track "kind of plays like a grass course."

The slow-early, fast-late style that has been most effective in recent two-turn races on the main track will be relevant again in the Santa Margarita because the field lacks a true speed horse. Although Dawn After Dawn won the Grade 2 La Canada by racing gate to wire, the strategy was by default.

"I would prefer to take her off the pace, but the big mares don't have any speed, so I might be in that zone again," trainer John Sadler said.

Dawn After Dawn has won 4 of 14 and earned $334,373 despite a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 86.

Double Trouble won the Grade 1 Santa Maria last time, her seventh win from 15 starts. Even still, trainer Bobby Frankel admits, "I don't know if she's good enough to beat these kinds of horses, but she is 2 for 2 on synthetic."

The Santa Margarita is race 9 on a 10-race card Sunday.