05/20/2009 11:00PM

The stars are lining up for Shirreffs


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Marty Wygod must have misunderstood the question. When asked how he felt about throwing his talented filly Life Is Sweet against the brick wall known as Zenyatta, he replied like a boy heading to his first World Series.

"Are you kidding? It's very exciting," Wygod said. "It's the kind of thing California needs, even though it is very nerve-wracking. This is the first time I'm going to be really nervous."

Most owners, given the chance, would run from running against Zenyatta as fast as possible, seeing a more profitable path of least resistance. But already an owner like Jess Jackson is eroding the behavior, exemplified by his passion to run the likes of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra in the most challenging and rewarding events.

But then, who wouldn't want to win a Preakness, or a Dubai World Cup? The $150,000 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park on Saturday, in which Zenyatta, Life Is Sweet, and seven others are entered, is hardly on the short list of America's must-win races. Will there be television coverage beyond TVG? No. Will there be more than a few thousand fans in the stands? Doubtful.

Furthermore, there are plenty of places around the country offering good money in softer spots. And let's face it - second place in a race like the Milady isn't even worth that much, $30,000 to be exact. A fine filly like Life Is Sweet could fire the best race of her life and still get her doors blown off by the Z-train.

Complicating matters is the fact that both Life Is Sweet and Zenyatta are trained by John Shirreffs. Zenyatta, though, is owned by Ann and Jerry Moss, putting Shirreffs in the same spot occupied by Charlie Whittingham in race after major race throughout most of his career, with top horses owned by rival patrons going head to head for the big money.

Whittingham managed to spread the wealth around, and so far events have allowed Shirreffs to keep his pair of aces apart. Life Is Sweet is perfect this season, sweeping three major races at Santa Anita, while Zenyatta, sitting on her 9-for-9 lifetime record, has yet to start. No doubt Wygod had some words of reassurance for Shirreffs.

"I didn't want him to worry, so just the other night I told him that he shouldn't be bothered or stressed at all," Wygod said. "Regardless of the outcome, one of us is gonna fire your ass.

"There was silence on the phone . . . then he started laughing. Sometimes my sense of humor gets taken the wrong way if someone doesn't know me pretty well."

Wygod is a member of the Del Mar board of directors and proprietor of River Edge Farm, an island of relative stability in the roiling universe of California breeding. Life Is Sweet, a homebred, is a full sister to Sweet Catomine, Wygod's champion 2-year-old filly of 2004, which means it is hard to see how Life Is Sweet could be more valuable than she is already. But Wygod also wants to find out how good she is as well.

"You've seen the kind of turn of foot she can have if needed," Wygod said, referring particularly to her dramatic Santa Margarita performance in March. "It's just a different kind of race this time. And to a great degree it comes down to how much she's going to like running at Hollywood compared to Santa Anita. Zenyatta's won four races there and we've never run there at all, and the track is very different than the one at Santa Anita. This is not an excuse. It's an objective observation, because on synthetic tracks, you just don't know until they run."

The meeting of Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet looms as the best non-Breeders' Cup match featuring top mares since the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. That day, Zenyatta toyed with Ginger Punch and Hystericalady, the one-two finishers in the 2007 BC Distaff.

"What makes this even more fascinating is that they have similar styles of running," Wygod added. "I gave John the best possible outcome. I told him if he was half as good as everyone thought he was, he'd be able to pull it off. Let's have a dead heat. That would solve the problem."

Preposterous, right? A dead heat between two horses from the same barn owned by different people. It happened, though, 19 years ago on the Hollywood Park turf, when Richard Mandella honed both John Mabee's Beautiful Melody and Robert Folsom's Reluctant Guest to perfection, then sent them out to finish in a tie at the end of the Grade 1 Beverly Hills Handicap on June 30, 1990.

"I never duplicated it, so I never figured out how I did it," Mandella said. "Those two mares had run against each other earlier in the meet, in the Wilshire Handicap. Beautiful Melody was on the lead, but Reluctant Guest came on from last to beat her about a length. When they came back, Beautiful Melody was good enough to be right there with Reluctant Guest. So tell John I needed a practice swing to pull it off."

Mandella can even coach Shirreffs on protocol if the Milady comes down to a close photo.

"Mr. Mabee wasn't there that day, so I was watching the race with Mr. Folsom," he said. "While they were looking at the photo, we were trying to decide whether or not we should go down. I told him I was going to go ahead, because it really didn't matter to me."