02/17/2009 12:00AM

A second real 'Sweet' treat

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Horseplayers have every right to be both mystified and impatient with the evolving challenges of handicapping synthetic surfaces. Some very major racetracks threw a whole lot of variables on the wall in a short period of time, giving even the most dedicated customers ample reason to turn their backs or tear their hair.

Horseplayers, though, are survivors, and in the deepest part of their hearts they are desperately in love with the game. That is why it was so good to see them rewarded with three exceptional performances on the Santa Anita main track over the holiday weekend, all three linked by a common theme.

None of them was Zenyatta, and so what?

It should be enough that La Canada winner Life Is Sweet, Santa Maria winner Santa Teresita, and Buena Vista winner Jibboom are all of a certain age and class, all in brilliant form, and all of them guaranteed to make an impact on the older female division as the season unfolds. Whether or not any of them will be able to topple the queen remains to be seen.

Zenyatta still breathes different air from the rest of the division, but it looks as if Life Is Sweet is getting an occasional whiff, especially since they are stabled right across from each other in the serene John Shirreffs barn at Hollywood Park. It's easy to tell them apart. Zenyatta, all blaze and wild mane, is the one done by the same firm that built Stonehenge. Life Is Sweet is an unmarked, businesslike bay. She will, though, if asked, do a great Zenyatta impression.

A replay of the La Canada Stakes, run last Saturday, is available in any number of formats. "Live" was best of all, because what Life Is Sweet did was impossible, or at least highly unlikely, given the fact that she was 10 lengths back of a 50-second half-mile going 1 1/8 miles against a capable bunch of fellow 4-year-old fillies. You needed to be there to believe it really happened.

Garrett Gomez, who would bleed ice water these days he's riding so cool, said he was only following instructions from Shirreffs and owner Marty Wygod to keep his filly relaxed and well back of the pace.

"At the seven-eighths I would have fired 'em both," Gomez said. "I could have broke her into a jog, we were going so slow."

That would have been a sight, and probably triggered a stewards' investigation, so it's just as well Gomez stayed low and found cover, following the back markers as they made their progress into the far turn. By the time Life Is Sweet tipped out from behind Taste's Sis and into the stretch, the front bunch was in a dead sprint. Life Is Sweet needed every inch of the nine furlongs, but her last, dramatic lunge carried her to the line three-quarters of a length in front of Del Mar Oaks winner Magical Fantasy.

Gomez compared the ferocious finish of Life Is Sweet to hitting the throttle of a speedboat.

"You know how they take off, at first with their nose in the air," he said, "then how they kind of get comfortable with the speed they're going, and the nose drops and they level off . . . and just fly. That's how she felt."

Life Is Sweet, a full sister to Wygod's champion 2-year-old filly Sweet Catomine, won twice in seven races at 2 and 3 for Bill Mott, and was clearly one of Mott's patient works in progress.

"Bill Mott did nothing wrong," said Wygod when asked an impertinent question after the La Canada, which is obvious, since she was delivered into Shirreffs's hands ready and willing to become the 4-year-old she is today.

The same thing worked with Wygod's horse After Market, the Storm Cat colt who went from Mott in the East to Shirreffs in the West and might have been a grass champion, had it not rained the 40 days and 40 nights leading up to the 2007 Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park.

Sweet Catomine, trained by Julio Canani, shot across the game like a meteor, winning the 2004 Del Mar Debutante as a maiden and then the Oak Leaf Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She added the Santa Ysabel and the Santa Anita Oaks in early 2005, but then the plot went wrong, and after a dull try in the Santa Anita Derby and comments by Wygod that she was not 100 percent for the race, Sweet Catomine disappeared from view.

Almost. In the wake of her Santa Anita Derby, Sweet Catomine was transferred briefly to the care of Shirreffs, but never did much more than eat. A few weeks later, Wygod announced her retirement.

"They couldn't look more different," Shirreffs said of the talented sisters. "Sweet Catomine was much taller. She'd just try to overpower you. Life Is Sweet looks more like the Storm Cat came out in her."

If the stars align, it will be a treat to watch Life Is Sweet meet Santa Teresita in the Santa Margarita Handicap on March 14. By Tuesday morning, Shirreffs saw no reason to think it would not happen.

"She took her race surprisingly well," Shirreffs said. "She was a little cranky yesterday. You know how it is after their races, when they want to be left alone a little bit. But her eye is nice and bright and she looks good. She's quite a gift."