03/05/2008 12:00AM

Two out of five would be nice

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In a perfect world (stop laughing) the field for the $300,000 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on Sunday would include the five most exciting older females on the West Coast.

Okay, so there's no chance. But just for a moment imagine a 1 1/8-mile main-track event pitting Ginger Punch, Nashoba's Key, Hystericalady, Magnificience and Zenyatta. There have been Breeders' Cup races come up lighter than that.

Such a bunch would have rivaled some of the memorable Santa Margaritas of the past, including a 1972 field that featured Turkish Trousers, Typecast, Convenience, Street Dancer, and Manta, or the 1951 renewal, in which Special Touch and Bill Shoemaker defeated future Hall of Famers Bed o' Roses and Bewitch. For the record, fans are still waiting for another Santa Margarita like the 1976 running won by Tizna over Susan's Girl, Gay Style, La Zanzara, Quaze Quilt, and Chris Evert. But no one is holding their breath.

So it is with regrets to note that Ginger Punch, though healthy and training well in the wake of her victory in the Sunshine Millions Distaff in January, will be off to Keeneland soon with the cream of the Bobby Frankel runners, and that the mysterious Magnificience, unbeaten, unsound and oddly spelled, worked as recently as last Monday for Bruce Headley but still has a ways to go for her return.

Hystericalady, a close second to Ginger Punch in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Distaff, is heading to Oaklawn Park to prepare for the Apple Blossom Handicap, which leaves Nashoba's Key and Zenyatta to head the field on Sunday. Maybe.

John Shirreffs, who trains the 4-year-old Zenyatta for Ann and Jerry Moss, is reserving the right to watch the filly train a bit longer before committing to Sunday's event. At least, that was his story on Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park as he stood outside his barn, admiring Zenyatta as she cooled out from a gallop.

Zenyatta has run just three times and won all three, most recently the El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 13. Since then, a combination of weather, tracks and minor "racehorse issues" - in Shirreffs's words - have conspired to disrupt Zenyatta's progress toward what seems to be inevitable stardom.

"The only thing is how much time she's lost and how it had affected her condition," Shirreffs noted. "That's a hard thing to equate in a horse, because some of them hold their condition. And you don't want to overtrain, because they can come into a race dull."

Shirreffs can be forgiven if he wants to make certain that all bases are covered before producing Zenyatta. It took him long enough to get her to this point. Almost too big and too fast for her own good, the towering dark bay daughter of Street Cry was raising hopes from her first serious works as a 2-year-old, back in 2006.

"There was the time she outworked Tiago," Shirreffs recalled, summoning the name of the 2007 Santa Anita Derby and Goodwood winner. "He had gone two or three five-eighths, and she was going her first five-eighths. She just went . . . ," and here Shirreffs made one of those trainer noises they make to describe a horse going very fast and leaving another horse behind. Sort of a combination of whoosh, zoom and wow.

If Zenyatta tees it up Sunday, they could run the Santa Margarita around the shed row of Hollywood's Barn 55 and the result could stand. Just 35 paces from Zenyatta's stall 85 on the east side of the barn, Nashoba's Key was pinning her ears, snarling and charging the webbing of stall 71 if anyone or anything happened by. In other words, she was feeling just fine.

"She likes it over here - been very tough, very happy," said barn foreman Gustavo Gutierrez, who was minding the store while trainer Carla Gaines was across town looking after the stable's Santa Anita division.

Nashoba's Key, now 5, was last seen finishing second for owner Warren Williamson in the female grass race on the Santa Anita portion of the Sunshine Millions program. Normally, she would have been training at Santa Anita as well.

"I've had a very aggressive virus that's taken hold of about a third of my barn there," Gaines said. "I would have liked to have had Nashoba at Santa Anita to get used to the surface after they reworked it, but it was just too much of a risk. Even when I bring horses over from Hollywood to run, they go into a completely different barn."

Like Zenyatta, Nashoba's Key got a late start, and she has more than made up for the fact that she did not run at either 2 or 3. At this point one year ago, she had run only twice. Still, she ended up winning her first seven starts - four of them major events over a variety of surfaces - before finishing a respectable fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Monmouth.

"I'm a little concerned that she hasn't been able to get the feel of the Santa Anita surface yet," Gaines said. "It has been more similar to Del Mar's Polytrack, with times a bit slower and playing more for closers on the outside. But then today they were working on it again, so who knows what it will be like Sunday? At least we know she's handled everything we've asked her to run on so far."