03/15/2010 12:00AM

Showdown will have to wait

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NEW YORK - The decision not to send Rachel Alexandra to Oaklawn Park to face Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom is without question the right one after Rachel Alexandra, in her first start since being voted Horse of the Year, failed get the job done as the 1-20 favorite in last Saturday's New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds.

There are a few reasons why the long-awaited meeting should come later anyway. For one, the Apple Blossom, with Rachel Alexandra coming off a loss, would not have had the same appeal. More importantly, it would be unsatisfying, not to mention unfair, for either Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta to be below her best form. Rachel Alexandra's connections are clearly uncomfortable with their filly's status right now, and they should be. As brilliant as Zenyatta was winning Saturday's Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita, Rachel Alexandra would stand no chance against her off the race she ran in the New Orleans Ladies.

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Yes, there were extenuating circumstances surrounding Rachel Alexandra. She was making her first start in six months, and her much scrutinized preparation for the New Orleans Ladies did not go ideally. On the plus side, after promoting the pace, Rachel Alexandra fought back when tackled in the stretch by the surprising Zardana and did not go down easily, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. But Rachel Alexandra did go down, and her hurried preparation seemed a contributing factor. She looked very much like a short horse.

At the same time, Rachel Alexandra looked nothing like the horse who crushed champion 3-year-old male Summer Bird in last year's Haskell. So it is fair to question whether she is the same horse. Rachel Alexandra was 1-20 in the New Orleans Ladies for a reason. She towered over the field on paper. Her last nine Beyer Figures were faster than any the other four entrants had ever earned in 77 total starts. The pace Rachel Alexandra prompted was unremarkable, and even if she was only at 75 percent efficiency, she should have had enough to best Zardana, a third-stringer in the same John Shirreffs barn that contains Zenyatta.

Now, there is temptation to go back and revisit Rachel Alexandra's 3-year-old campaign last year. It was extremely ambitious, and that Rachel Alexandra passed each test with panache is what made it so special. But while we all loved it at the time, you have to wonder, were three starts against males last year too many? Rachel Alexandra gave everything she had to prevail in the Woodward. Did that race take more out of her than we realize, something that she can never get back?

On the other end of the spectrum, Zenyatta was amazing in the Santa Margarita, which says a lot because Zenyatta also laid over her field and was supposed to win. (More fun with numbers - Zenyatta's last 12 Beyer Figures were better than any the seven who raced against her ever earned in 109 starts.)

Maybe he was overly concerned about losing ground in a situation where Zenyatta was carrying top weight of 127 pounds, but jockey Mike Smith elected to forgo his usual overland route and instead pick off the field from last through traffic. This could have been huge mistake because it necessitated Zenyatta having to weave in and out for a clear path. That is no easy feat for such a big horse, and seeing her do precisely this, all with time running out and with her perfect record at stake, was a true thrill. Zenyatta has the body of a Mack truck, but she handled like a Porsche, and she just overwhelmed the leaders late while never having to get out of first gear. She earned a Beyer of 102.

Speaking of champions, Lookin At Lucky, last year's champion 2-year-old male, made an impressive 3-year-old debut in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, one of three important Kentucky Derby preps that were also run on Saturday. Lookin At Lucky got up to win by only a head over Noble's Promise, but that he won at all was much to his credit. In his first start in three months, first start on dirt, and first start in blinkers, Lookin At Lucky was roughed up between horses at the start, and was nearly dropped late on the backstretch. Noble's Promise was coming off the same layoff and was also making his first start on dirt, so he ran well, too. But Noble's Promise had none of the trouble Lookin At Lucky had, and has now fallen just short of Lookin At Lucky in all three of their meetings.

Sidney's Candy stretched out to two turns to win the San Felipe at Santa Anita, unquestionably benefiting from being able to set a slow, uncontested pace. Although it's tempting to discount Sidney's Candy because of the big pace advantage, and because the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles looks like a real stretch for him, this colt can run. San Felipe runner-up Interactif, who was coming off a series of turf starts, ran every bit as well considering how strongly he finished into the slow pace. Even Caracortado, who finished third as the favorite in his first defeat, can be forgiven because the slow pace forced him to move earlier than he might have preferred.

The other Derby prep Saturday was the Tampa Bay Derby. The inexperienced Odysseus deserves credit for re-rallying after looking thoroughly beaten in the stretch to take a win photo I still can't believe he won. You could also give close third-place finisher Super Saver a pass for needing his first start of the year. But the Tampa Bay Derby did suffer in comparison to the Rebel and San Felipe.