02/10/2011 4:27PM

Who's ready to fill void left by Zenyatta?


With the running of the $150,000 Santa Maria on Saturday at Santa Anita, the age of Zenyatta is officially ended. During her three seasons in California, the big mare won 14 major races for the division – including a Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic – which pretty much eliminated the opportunities for any upwardly mobile competitors to enhance their records without fleeing the state.

The Santa Maria was the only top race out West that Zenyatta did not win, only because she didn’t try. The baton is now passed to what is left of the female division she left behind, with the hopeful addition of new shooters who could at least help begin to fill the considerable void.

The good news is that St Trinians, the defending Santa Maria champ, is back in action and that Zardana, the redoubtable Brazilian, has returned for another season.

Both have brushed with greatness. Zardana earned her place in the history books by defeating reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies Invitational in March of 2010, while St Trinians gave Zenyatta a legitimate scare in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park last summer.

Unfortunately, those monumental efforts were also a last hurrah, for at least a while, for both mares. St Trinians was gutted by her race against Zenyatta, prompting Mike Mitchell to give her a merciful vacation. Zardana, who is shy about winning races back-to-back, lost her next four carefully-spaced appearances after beating Rachel. So much for flying too close to the sun.

The Santa Maria, at 1 1/16 miles, could be the race in which Bayakoa Stakes winner Washington Bridge stakes her claim for the front rank of the local group. Miss Match, from Neil Drysdale via Michael Matz, had a nice allowance score at Golden Gate in her California debut. Mona de Momma we know can sprint – see the 2010 Humana Distaff and Las Flores – while It Tiz is always reliable for an honest try.

Then there is Vision in Gold, a daughter of Medaglia d’Oro who was making noise like a good thing last March before hitting a wall against Blind Luck, Switch, and Tanda at Hollywood Park. Vision in Gold got some time off and has come back since late October with three good races, including a Dec. 30 allowance race romp over the Santa Maria’s course and distance. So now it is time, as Charlie Whittingham used to say, “to find out where Molly put the peaches.”

“I guess Charlie was saying we’ll get to the truth,” said Ron Ellis, who trains Vision in Gold for Mace and Samantha Siegel. “I’m just hoping she’ll keep moving forward like she has her last three races.”

If nothing else, Vision in Gold fits in Zenyatta’s parking space. She’s a big, dark-coated filly, hitting 17 hands, with all the pros and cons that come with such imposing dimensions.

“She’s needed time to grow into her frame,” said Ellis, who won the 1998 Santa Maria with the versatile Exotic Wood. “She’s gradually doing that, but she probably won’t reach full maturity until about a year from now.

“She is getting more comfortable with her body, and she’s getting a lot smarter,” Ellis noted. “I’ve worked her in company, but she’s got such a long stride she can go five-eighths in 59 so easily that she never really learned how to level off and run.”

Joel Rosario, who has been aboard Vision in Gold in five of her seven starts, takes the mount right back in the Santa Maria.

“She really lowered her head the other day and decided that she was going to go by horses rather than hanging with them,” Ellis said. “We kind of threw her in the deep water a little early in those stakes as a 3-year-old. But I think it’s clear she’s going to get better and better as she gets older.

“I did point her out to John Shirreffs before she ever raced,” Ellis added. “I said I bet that’s what Zenyatta looked like before she raced – a real tall filly kind of on the thin side. John just smiled.

“We don’t have any aspirations that we’re going to be the next Zenyatta or anything like that,” Ellis said. “But it’s sure the kind of thing you can dream about.”

◗ As someone toiling on the edges of the art world, this reporter should know better than to give the wrong credit when extolling the virtues of a particular creative effort. That is why profound apologies and a quick correction are owned Jaime Corum, whose images of Secretariat and Zenyatta adorned the poster offered last weekend at Santa Anita Park, and not Fred Stone’s, as written.

The Louisville-based Corum is a prolific and rising star in the equine art world whose background as a show jumper has provided an organic connection to the subjects of her work. Her portraits of Barbaro and Eight Belles raise goose bumps, and her imagination also turns to the depiction of horses in mythical circumstance. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the goods at jaimecorum.com, and enjoy.