03/12/2010 12:00AM

Tough assignment for Striking Dancer

Benoit & Associates
Striking Dancer, winner of the La Canada last month, will tackle Zenyatta on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The elusive first stakes win arrived for Striking Dancer in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 14.

What comes next in Saturday's $250,000 Santa Margarita Handicap will give owner Steve Stan Stables and trainer Kenneth McPeek a gauge on where she ranks in the nation - against one of the very best.

All Striking Dancer has to do in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita is take on Zenyatta, the undefeated two-time champion who is making her first start since a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic here last November.

The idea of facing on Zenyatta with Striking Dancer leaves McPeek's assistant trainer Jordan Blair optimistic and realistic in the same thought.

"She's training just as good as she did in the last race," Blair said. "As long as we get the jump on Zenyatta, she'll have to run us down. I think we have a good chance to be up there, but we're running against the best horse in the world."

In other words, a placing in a Grade 1 may have to do this weekend, if Zenyatta runs her typical race. Striking Dancer was a 13-1 outsider in the La Canada. The second- and third-place finishers from that race, Gripsholm Castle and Floating Heart, are also part of a field of eight in the Santa Margarita.

Zenyatta carries top weight of 127 pounds, spotting her rivals from 12 to 19 pounds. Striking Dancer is second on the list of weights, at 115 pounds, and will be ridden by Alex Solis.

The McPeek team considered running My Baby Baby, who was third in the Grade 2 Santa Maria Handicap in February. She will start in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 9, a race expected to draw Zenyatta and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

My Baby Baby is better with time between races, making the decision to skip the Santa Margarita even easier, Blair said.

"She runs better with her energy in reserve," Blair said. "We know she likes the dirt."

Santa Anita expects a crowd of approximately 20,000 for Saturday's 10-race program, which would be about double the typical crowd for a Saturday, according to track president Ron Charles. He said the track is reaching out through advertising to promote Zenyatta's comeback.

A winner of 14 races for Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs, Zenyatta has made five starts at Santa Anita, but has not started at the winter-spring meeting since the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes here in January 2008. Her other four wins at Santa Anita came during the 2008 and 2009 Oak Tree meetings in the fall.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of the assistant to Striking Dancer's trainer, Ken McPeek. He is Jordan Blair, not Jordan Brand.