03/25/2009 12:00AM

Zensational gets a test in first route

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Zensational's reputation as a promising 3-year-old will be on hold for about 96 seconds at Santa Anita on Friday.

When he starts as a heavy favorite in a one-mile optional claimer for 3-year-olds, Zensational will be making his first start against winners and around two turns. A victory could send him to a Kentucky Derby prep in April. A loss will push him down the list of the nation's promising 3-year-olds.

The key to the race will be whether jockey Garrett Gomez can throttle Zensational's remarkable speed over a mile.

"Garrett will have his hands full," trainer Bob Baffert said.

Owned by Zayat Stables, Zensational won his 3-year-old debut by 3 3/4 lengths in a six-furlong maiden race here Feb. 21. The race was Zensational's second start, preceded by a fourth-place finish in a maiden race at Saratoga last August, his only start for trainer Bill Mott.

Baffert trains Kentucky Derby prospect Pioneerof the Nile for Zayat. Should Zensational run well on Friday, he could head to the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 18. But Baffert has not committed to that plan.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself," Baffert said.

Friday, Zensational is expected to have the early lead in a field of five. Two other runners won their last start, both on Feb. 26 - Quindici Man, in a starter allowance over a mile, and Vaundell in a six-furlong maiden race for statebreds.

The other two runners were beaten in an optional claimer over 6 1/2 furlongs March 11: Ventana, trained by Baffert, finished third, while Mt. Davidson, who is entered to be claimed for $80,000 on Friday, was seventh.

Vaundell is owned by breeder John Harris and Per Antonsen. Trainer Carla Gaines said Friday's race is a prep for the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes for statebred 3-year-olds at Hollywood Park on April 25.

"If he does what we think he'll do, we'll go to the Snow Chief," Gaines said.

Vaundell made his debut Feb. 26. He closed from sixth in a field of nine to win by 1 3/4 lengths, pulling clear through the final furlong.

"How could you not like it?" Gaines said. "In the mornings, he was precocious in the gate and then he broke slowly in the race. It ended up working out pretty well."