09/28/2017 11:36AM

Paradise Woods has questions to answer in Zenyatta

Emily Shields
Paradise Woods has lost back-to-back starts since her 11 3/4-length romp in the Santa Anita Oaks.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Stellar Wind will be dozing in her stall when the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes is run Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita. The early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Stellar Wind will train into her career finale. No prep, no worries.

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Instead, the pressure is on Paradise Woods, the likely favorite Saturday even though her Santa Anita Oaks blowout seems like a distant memory. Nearly six months and two losses later, Paradise Woods has questions to answer in the Zenyatta.

“It’s a test, to see if we’re back where we were at the Oaks,” trainer Richard Mandella said. “She acts like she is. She looks great, she’s training great, and we’re going to try to make up lost ground.”

Paradise Woods finished 11th as the Kentucky Oaks favorite, and sixth in her recent comeback at Del Mar. She had alibis in both – pace and trouble. If the excuses are legit, and if she runs back to her Santa Anita Oaks romp, Paradise Woods should be tough to beat in the Zenyatta.

The 1 1/16-mile BC Challenge race is the final local prep for the Distaff. Win and you’re in, lose and stay home.

Six fillies and mares entered the $300,000 Zenyatta, including Stellar Wind’s stablemate Shenandoah Queen and Faithfully, the one-two finishers in a restricted stakes last month at Del Mar. The other entrants are Midnight Toast, Motown Lady, and the sprinter Rockport Babe, who is likely to set the pace. The Zenyatta is race 5 on an 11-race card.

For a few weeks in spring, Paradise Woods was the toast of the division. Her 11 3/4-length Santa Anita Oaks win, in just her third start, earned a 107 Beyer, still the highest of the year by a filly or mare. Then it all went wrong.

Paradise Woods was compromised by a pace battle in the Kentucky Oaks, and in her recent comeback she lost her chance early. She bobbled, was away slowly, rolled up to press the pace, tired, and came out of the race body sore. Mandella blamed himself.

“I should have stood her in the gate more, being laid off and all,” he said. “That was the worst part, the gate.”

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Paradise Woods recovered, has schooled extensively in the gate since, and recently has trained like the Paradise Woods of old.

The field’s only graded stakes winner and only 3-year-old, Paradise Woods faces seasoned older rivals including Shenandoah Queen. She won 4 of 9 before she was purchased privately in spring by Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler. In her second start for Sadler, she scored a 20-1 upset with the highest Beyer Figure of her career, a 93.

Sadler believes the best is ahead. “I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of her yet,” he said.

Plans call for Shenandoah Queen to campaign next year at age 6.

Faithfully, runner-up to Shenandoah Queen last out at Del Mar, seeks redemption Saturday.

“I was disappointed in her last race,” said Faithfully’s trainer, Bob Baffert. “That track can be a little funny. She doesn’t have a lot of speed.”

Rockport Babe is racing two turns on dirt for the first time.