03/13/2010 12:00AM

Smith: Zenyatta may be better than last season

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Barbara D. Livingston
Saturday's Grade 1 Santa Margarita will be Zenyatta's first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Some of the things that Mike Smith says about Zenyatta seem hard to believe.

"It never feels like I've gotten to the bottom of her," he said at Santa Anita on Thursday. "I hope I never have to find out. Other good horses, they've had to give it their all. Even when she's won by a short margin, she's playing, flicking her ears."

Smith has ridden the unbeaten Zenyatta in 11 of her 14 wins, most of which were comfortable victories. She will be expected to win again when she makes her 2010 debut in Saturday's $250,000 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita. The Grade 1 Santa Margarita will be Zenyatta's first start since her historic win in the Breeders' Cup Classic here last November, when she became the first female to win that showcase race.

The champion older female of 2008 and 2009, Zenyatta will be heavily favored to win the Santa Margarita over 1 1/8 miles on the main track. The race is designed as a prep for the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 9 when Zenyatta is expected to face 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in a greatly anticipated matchup.

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Smith has been working Zenyatta in the last month, and has noticed a change in the 6-year-old. She seems better than last year, he said.

"I think she's more forward this year than last year," he said. "You might see a big race out of her first time back. If I didn't know better, I'd think she's stronger than last year.

"She's getting to her company really fast and being very aggressive about it. If she does that, we'll see something pretty cool."

Zenyatta will carry top weight of 127 pounds and has eight rivals in the Santa Margarita, the seventh race on a 10-race program that includes the $150,000 San Felipe Stakes for 3-year-olds, the ninth race. The Santa Margarita will be shown on HRTV and streamed live on NTRA.com.

Zenyatta's rivals lack a Grade 1 win among them, but two have won a graded stakes. Pretty Unusual won the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes in January, while Striking Dancer won the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes on Feb. 14. Gripsholm Castle and Floating Heart, second and third in the La Canada, are part of the Santa Margarita field. Dance to My Tune and Made for Magic are stakes winners, Pretty Katherine has been stakes-placed, while Powerofvoodoo, who is not a certain starter according to trainer Barry Abrams, has run in claimers at this meeting.

From any logical perspective, they are unlikely to beat Zenyatta, who wasn't even supposed to be racing this year. After the BC Classic, owners Jerry and Ann Moss said Zenyatta would be retired and bred this winter. They changed their mind on Jan. 16, two days before Zenyatta lost the 2009 Horse of the Year title to Rachel Alexandra.

Zenyatta returned to serious training that weekend, and has impressed trainer John Shirreffs in the last month with her workouts and gallops. He admits to still being a little stung by the Horse of the Year voting.

"What more can a horse do than what she's done over the last two years?" he said. "If they hold her in such little regard, we'll just enjoy it. Because we didn't get Horse of the Year, we don't have the pressure.

"Mr. Moss brought her back to have some fun with her and let the fans enjoy her."

At least 20,000 people are expected at Santa Anita on Saturday, nearly double what the track would draw on a normal Saturday. Many who were in attendance when Zenyatta won the BC Classic, or were here when she was sent off into a presumed retirement during a ceremony on Dec. 26, will be back, with cameras at the ready.

They will be the people packing the garden surrounding the paddock, cheering her name as she is led from the saddling enclosure to the walking ring.

"It's like you're walking with the most popular person at a huge party," Shirreffs said, recalling past moments in the paddock. "There are always people wishing her the best. 'Go get 'em.' She loves it, too. You don't worry what things will make her upset. She's into it."