02/08/2010 12:00AM

Season hits high gear

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If Punxsutawney Phil were a horseplayer, he would see things moving much faster than usual this month.

First, Oaklawn Park announced on Feb. 4 that is putting up $5 million to attract Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and undefeated Zenyatta for a retooled nine-furlong Apple Blossom Stakes on April 3. Because both of these extraordinary female racehorses have won on Oaklawn's dirt racing surface and because both are back in training, there actually is a chance that this race may occur. Should that be the case, Zenyatta may have two important advantages that will not dramatically alter the probability that Rachel will be favored in the matchup.

1) Zenyatta will have a legit prep race in a stakes at Santa Anita in early March, probably the Santa Margarita, while Rachel may progress more slowly towards tip-top shape.

Rachel's 2009 campaign was one for the ages, but no one can guarantee that she will come back to the races at 4 as good as she was after she went all in to win the Woodward Stakes as a 3-year-old against older male horses at Saratoga on Sept. 6. According to trainer Steve Asmussen, Rachel definitely needed the balance of the year to recover from that effort and she might need more time in 2010 to reach a similar level of performance.

2) Although Rachel has more natural speed, Zenyatta is the only horse I have ever seen who persistently fires a powerful winning rally from far back in the pack without needing a hotly contested pace to soften her rivals. Zenyatta, in fact, seems impervious to pace issues, scoring many of her 14 straight wins while dealing with slow or uncontested pace scenarios. Sometimes she turns in a final quarter mile in 24 seconds; sometimes in 23; or when absolutely necessary, she turns on the afterburners to come home in 22 and change.

Beyond this potentially historic matchup, it already is clear that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra will not have the racing stage to themselves this year. To verify that, please review the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, won by Quality Road by more than a dozen lengths in track record time. The Beyer Speed Figure for this nine-furlong race was a robust 121 - highest for a route race in 4 1/2 years. For perspective, that plots 3-6 lengths faster than the best performances turned in by Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta.

Meanwhile at Santa Anita Park, the Grade 2 Strub Stakes on Saturday was postponed until this Saturday, Feb. 13, due to heavy rains that once again taxed the drainage capacity of the synthetic Pro-Ride racing surface. Actually, the whole card had to be canceled, and the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes for Kentucky Derby prospects and the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, for 3-year-old fillies, will also be brought back on Saturday.

With Santa Anita back in business last Sunday, another major stakes winner from 2009 served notice that he will be a serious contender in the $10 million Dubai World Cup at the new Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 27.

Not only did Richard's Kid uncork a sustained run to catch longshot Dakota Phone in the $150,000 San Antonio Handicap, he pulled a Zenyatta, overcoming a slow pace while turning in his best effort since winning the 10-furlong Pacific Classic at Del Mar last summer. Given that the Pacific Classic was run on the synthetic Polytrack and the San Antonio on Pro-Ride, handicappers should take note that the Dubai World Cup will be run on the synthetic Tapeta surface which Sheikh Mohammed has installed at Meydan. Not many horses pointing for the world's richest race will bring such good synthetic track form to the task. In addition, Richard's Kid's Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert knows what it takes to win a World Cup, having done so in 1998 with the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm, and in 2001 with Captain Steve.

Of more immediate concern are this year's Derby prospects, including the good group that was set to run in the Bob Lewis last week. Barring injury, most will be back in action in the rescheduled contest this weekend. This change actually should give horseplayers a better line on the relative abilities of these horses for Churchill Downs's Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 1, which will open Friday at noon Eastern and remain open until 6 p.m. Sunday.

As usual, Churchill will offer three Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools and will include win and exacta wagering on 23 designated betting interests, plus No. 24, which will represent all 3-year-olds not specifically assigned a futures betting number.

Pool No. 2 runs from March 5-7; Pool No. 3 from March 26-28. There also will be a separate Kentucky Oaks Future Wager pool with win betting only that will coincide with Pool 2.

As stated in previous discussions about playing the Derby Futures, there is little point in backing any exposed contender, such as the talented Lookin At Lucky, given the perils of making it from mid-February to the starting gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. Instead, futures are best used to find a credible longshot with a chance to develop into a top contender. Yet there is potential value in playing "all others" (No. 24) as a saver wager against whatever horse you wind up playing in the Derby on Derby Day. With 366 Triple Crown nominees, No. 24 will cover more than 340 horses, many of which have not yet emerged as serious contenders on the Triple Crown chase.

Below is my first listing of top Derby prospects, including a few who will attract plenty of action in Pool 1. While my minimum allowable win odds for any Derby futures bet is 30-1, it may be possible in the exacta to combine a seemingly obvious Derby threat with one or more longshots to set up fair payoff possibilities. For instance, I will bet $48 in the exacta pool by using (A) Eskenderaya and (B) Lentenor as win and place keys in $2 boxes with (C) Buddy's Saint, (D) Dave in Dixie, (E) Drosselmeyer, (F) Tiz Chrome, and (G) Vale of York at a combined cost of $48 for each $2 unit invested. (Lentenor probably will be among the "all others" group, No. 24, along with Ice Box, Setsuko and others.) My exacta combinations will include: A, over B,C,D,E,F,G (6 combinations=$12); B,C,D,E,F,G over A (6 more combos); B over A,C,D,E,F,G (6 combos), and A,C,D,E,F,G over B (6 more combos). That's 24 total combos=$48 invested. This layout includes my top two - A over B and B over A - played twice to protect the price.

1) Lookin At Lucky is a nicely proportioned Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old of 2009 trained by Bob Baffert. His only potential negative is a lack of dirt racing experience.

2) Lentenor, a full brother to Barbaro trained by Michael Matz, won an allowance race on the grass so impressively at Gulfstream in January and is going to get his dirt test next month.

3) Buddy's Saint impressively won the nine-furlong Remsen at Aqueduct last fall.

4) Eskendereya, a beautifully bred colt who was sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, returned in excellent form at Gulfstream for trainer Todd Pletcher.

5) Drosselmeyer, a well-bred winner of a maiden mile at Churchill, also won an allowance route at Gulfstream on Jan. 31 for trainer Billy Mott.

6) American Lion, winner of a seven-furlong Grade 3 stakes at Hollywood in November, is expected for the Bob Lewis at 1 1/16 miles.

7) Vale of York, the underappreciated winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile who, unfortunately, is training in Dubai.

8) Super Saver won a graded stakes at Churchill last fall and is getting closer to his 2010 debut.

9) Tiz Chrome, a son of two-time BC Classic winner Tiznow trained by Baffert, won a maiden race at Churchill and a sprint stakes at Hollywood. He was expected to stretch out in the postponed Bob Lewis last Saturday, and may be shipped to Oaklawn for the Southwest Stakes on Monday instead of staying home for the rescheduled Lewis.

10) Setsuko, son of BC Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect, looked good finishing second in an allowance race on the turf at Santa Anita. Seems a good prospect for Hall of Fame trainer Dick Mandella.

11) Ice Box, a son of Pulpit trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito, is 2 for 2 around two turns and a probable for the Fountain of Youth at Gulf on Feb. 20.

12) Dave in Dixie, a fair sixth to Lookin At Lucky in the Grade 1 Norfolk at Santa Anita last fall, has worked forwardly for the Bob Lewis.