04/30/2010 12:00AM

Rachel much fitter for rematch


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rachel Alexandra was the undisputed star of the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. On Friday, the reigning Horse of the Year may overshadow even the tradition-rich Oaks itself when she returns to Churchill Downs to make her second start of the season in the $400,000 La Troienne, a Grade 2 race at 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares.

The La Troienne will be run as the sixth event on a 12-race Oaks program. Post time for the La Troienne is 1:26 p.m. Eastern, which means it will be shown live on HRTV but will not be part of Bravo's telecast of the Oaks, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m.

All eyes will be on Rachel Alexandra in the La Troienne, especially in light of her shocking setback at the hands of Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds on March 13. That performance put an end to the dream matchup between Rachel Alexandra and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Zenyatta, which had been scheduled to take place in the April 9 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. But a big effort from Rachel Alexandra on Friday would undoubtedly rekindle interest in a potential confrontation between the sport's two biggest stars.

Rachel Alexandra turned in one of the most memorable performances in the history of the Oaks when she strolled to a 20 1/4-length victory here one year ago for her former trainer Hal Wiggins. Rachel Alexandra was purchased privately by Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables and turned over to trainer Steve Asmussen shortly after the Oaks, and proceeded to win her next four starts - the Preakness, Mother Goose, Haskell, and Woodward - to complete an undefeated campaign that ended with Eclipse Awards as both the top 3-year-old filly and Horse of the Year.

Asmussen had to play a little catch-up with Rachel Alexandra to make the New Orleans Ladies, which was her first start since she defeated males in the Woodward more than six months earlier. As a result, she did not have enough left at the end to hold off the vastly improved Zardana, dropping a three-quarter-length decision. Rachel Alexandra has trained forwardly, and at times spectacularly, since returning to Churchill Downs earlier this spring, with her six-furlong work in 1:11.22 on April 19 reminiscent of the way she breezed just prior to the 2009 Oaks.

"She has looked very good in the morning here," said Asmussen. "Since New Orleans we've relaxed, given our works more spacing, stayed on routine. But I also remember what she looked like working last summer at Saratoga, almost un-equine at times. She's in the right direction but by no means is she at the level she was at last summer."

Jockey Calvin Borel, who was aboard Rachel Alexandra for all eight of her wins last year, will again have the mount in the La Troienne.

"I think Calvin's in a lot better position this time because he isn't trying to overcome a lack of fitness where we knew we were before," said Asmussen. "It's just a lot more comfortable for everybody in the fact we're simply fitter than we were then."

Beating Rachel Alexandra the first time was a shocker. Doing it again over Rachel's home course would prove to be almost as big of a surprise for the California-based Zardana, who has shipped to Kentucky to prove her win in the New Orleans Ladies was no fluke.

Trained by John Shirreffs, and therefore a stablemate of Zenyatta, Zardana won the Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park in her 2009 finale, then finished fourth in the Grade 2 Santa Maria at Santa Anita in her start before the New Orleans Ladies. She earned a career-best 101 Beyer Speed Figure for her performance in the New Orleans Ladies.

"She's doing very well and we're very excited to be running in this race," said Shirreffs. "Obviously beating her again will be a difficult task, but we knew she was in there when we entered. I'm hoping this race will go the same way as the last one, that there will be enough pace and she can lay just off it again."

Also in the La Troienne are Be Fair, who will add blinkers after finishing a tiring third behind Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom; Unrivaled Belle, winner of Gulfstream Park's Grade 3 Rampart earlier this winter; the Grade 1-placed Morena; and the multiple-stakes-placed Distinctive Dixie.

- additional reporting by David Grening