06/24/2009 11:00PM

Perfection proves a tricky pursuit

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Shug McGaughey used to look at the filly Treasure Trail every day and think to himself, "Oh well, at least she's sound." Or something like that.

Treasure Trail is a 3-year-old daughter of Pulpit who, beyond a decent effort in her debut last fall, never raised much more than a cloud of dust in three subsequent starts. McGaughey, a Hall of Famer and trainer of nine champions, said he tried everything he knew to find Treasure Trail's hole card, which is a lot.

"We tried short and long, tried the turf," McGaughey said. "She'd work all right in the morning. But she just couldn't run at all. Now I hope she's in foal to Indian Charlie."

Sorry, Shug. They can't all be Personal Ensign, or Inside Information. Still, if Treasure Trail turns out to be as good a mother as she was a failed racehorse, she will have half a chance to leave a mark, based on the fact that her dam is Vertigineux, a daughter of Kris S., and her 5-year-old half-sister does business under the name of Zenyatta.

"It was kind of a strange thing," McGaughey said. "If that mare hadn't had Balance, too, you'd have thought Zenyatta was a one-shot deal."

Balance, another half sister, was good enough to win Grade 1 events at 2, 3, and 4. Treasure Trail was sold for $550,000 as a yearling in September of 2007, when Balance was at the end of her career and Zenyatta was two months away from her first start.

"It's obvious people liked her, but why she couldn't run, I don't know," McGaughey said. "When the mare had Treasure Trail, the Zenyatta/Balance genes just didn't go with her."

McGaughey counts himself among the many who will be multitasking late Saturday afternoon, when Rachel Alexandra runs at 5:17, Eastern Daylight Time, in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park, and then Zenyatta counters at 2:30, Pacific Daylight Time, in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. Ladies and gentlemen, start your DVRs.

The last time two potential rivals of such stature shared a bicoastal stage might have been the afternoon of April 8, 1989. At Aqueduct, Easy Goer continued his march toward the Triple Crown with a 13-length victory in the one-mile Gotham Stakes, laying down a time that brushed perilously close to Dr. Fager's world record. Then, an hour and a half later at Santa Anita, the rising Charlie Whittingham star Sunday Silence won the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby by 11 lengths. Asked if Easy Goer's performance worried him, Whittingham complimented the colt's trainer - Shug McGaughey - then offered a cautionary wink.

"The last time I checked," Whittingham said, "the Derby was at a mile and a quarter."

Sunday Silence and Easy Goer moved from that point into a natural Triple Crown rivalry (final score was SS 2, EG 1). Unfortunately, there is no such setting to nudge Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra together. So, since this may be the closest they get to running in the same race, fans might as well kick back and enjoy the show.

Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra's owner, has stated unequivocally that his filly will not run in a Breeders' Cup race this fall over Santa Anita's synthetic surface. This in spite of Rachel's easy win over Polytrack at Keeneland last fall.

In the other corner, trainer John Shirreffs has repeatedly pointed out the obvious, that the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic is being run at Santa Anita this year and Zenyatta trains at Hollywood Park, making an ambitious East Coast incursion impractical. It should be noted, however, that Shirreffs sent Zenyatta to Churchill Downs for her 2009 debut in early May. Only the weather-beaten racetrack kept her from running on the same day Rachel Alexandra dominated the Kentucky Oaks.

As for McGaughey, he certainly knows something about running an unbeaten older female against the best 3-year-old filly in the crop. It happened very memorably on Sept. 10, 1988, in the Maskette Stakes at Belmont Park, when Personal Ensign and Winning Colors met in the first of their two historic battles.

Just as Zenyatta will be shooting for her 11th straight in the Vanity, Personal Ensign was going for number 11 without a defeat in the Maskette. Winning Colors, trained by Wayne Lukas, ran in all three jewels of the Triple Crown, winning the Kentucky Derby and finishing a brave third in the Preakness, though she was distanced in the Belmont Stakes. The terms of the Maskette were a one-turn mile under weight allowances, which gave Personal Ensign 123 pounds to 118 for Winning Colors.

"I had another filly in the race, named Cadillacing, with Cordero on her, that I was going to use to kind of keep Winning Colors entertained," McGaughey said.

"Then I came into the paddock earlier in the day, and Cordero told me Lukas was raising hell because we had that rabbit in there," Shug went on. "So I said okay, I'll just scratch her. We'll do this fair and square. Then I looked up after the break, and Winning Colors was about five in front. I thought, well, I made a mistake. But we were able to run her down. Winning Colors ran a very good race, and Personal Ensign was just good enough."

Three-quarters good enough, in a preview of their Breeders' Cup Distaff rematch, when Personal Ensign beat Winning Colors a nose and retired with a 13-0 record.

"I was just kind of relieved to get by another one that day," McGaughey said of the Maskette. "So I kind of know how Zenyatta's people feel. They've done a heckuva job, and I'll be rooting for her."