07/07/2008 12:00AM

Zenyatta may emerge even tougher


NEW YORK - It is probably a testament to how impressive Zenyatta was winning decisively in her first five career starts that the initial reaction to her victory in Saturday's Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park was surprise that she didn't score by open lengths yet again.

On the other hand, Zenyatta's close call Saturday did highlight a couple of positive points: It speaks to the high standard Zenyatta has established for herself, and it shows that she can win such an important race as the Vanity even without bringing her "A" game.

That Zenyatta didn't bring her best on Saturday is not in debate. There is no doubt her Vanity was not of the same quality as her dominating victories - scores that propelled her to the top of the older female division - in the Milady and Apple Blossom. Don't forget that in the Apple Blossom, Zenyatta crushed defending divisional champion Ginger Punch, who came back to gallop in two stakes. The question is, why was Zenyatta hard pressed to turn back the unlucky Tough Tiz's Sis by only a half-length?

I think the unusual way the Vanity was run had something to do with it. Silver Z opened up a double-digit lead down the backstretch, and while she figured to come back to the field eventually, the other riders in the Vanity just couldn't automatically assume that would be the case. Zenyatta was asked to move a bit on the backstretch, which is earlier than she is accustomed to. So instead of stunning her opposition with a quick turn of foot, as she usually does, she was going to try and out-grind them this time. She did, proving that she is more than a mere bully who is tough only when things go her way. Zenyatta proved she can handle a challenge. And it is possible that the challenge Zenyatta answered in the Vanity will serve to sharpen her focus and make her an even better horse, which would be terrible news for the rest of her division.

As noted, Tough Tiz's Sis was unlucky in the Vanity, losing momentum in midstretch and having to move out for racing room. I'm not sure that even if Tough Tiz's Sis had a clean trip, Zenyatta wouldn't have found more to keep her at bay. But it was still a tough beat - a beat that became a bit easier to take for the Bob Baffert stable when barn-mate Indian Blessing romped in the Grade 1 Prioress Stakes at Belmont Park.

The six-furlong Prioress was Indian Blessing's best performance since her championship-clinching wins last fall in the Frizette and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. For the first time, Indian Blessing operated from off the pace. And for the first time, Indian Blessing did not give ground in the final furlong, instead building a lead of 1 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole to more than five lengths at the wire. There's not much doubt that at this stage of her career, sprinting is definitely Indian Blessing's best game.

There were many other important stakes run over the holiday weekend. Let's take a look at some of them by division:

Turf males - After years of seeing an inexorable shift in the way American turf races are run toward the European style of wild closing sprints home, it was interesting to see horses allowed uncontested leads go on to upset both Friday's Grade 2 Firecracker at Churchill Downs and Saturday's Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth Park. Thorn Song's win in the Firecracker wasn't so much of an upset - he was the second choice. But he turned back the odds-on Einstein, who continues to earn admiration even in defeat for running one genuine race after another, no matter the distance or surface.

Presious Passion's 13-1 surprise in the U.N. was a true upset by one who has a real knack for such things, judging from his wins in the McKnight Handicap last December at 67-1 and the Pan American in April at 20-1. Champs Elysees was the big disappointment in the U.N. His dull sixth at even money in his first East Coast start brings into question the strength of the West's turf division.

Turf females - Backers of Ventura in Saturday's Grade 1 CashCall Mile at Hollywood wouldn't have been considered arrogant if they turned around and walked toward the windows to cash after their horse took a half-length lead on Diamond Diva in deep stretch. That's how over this race looked. But no one told Diamond Diva, who showed a huge heart to fight back and prevail by a bob of the nose. In the process, Diamond Diva flattered Precious Kitten, who was already the best turf mare in the country. Precious Kitten walloped Diamond Diva last time out in the Gamely.

Sprinters - Benny the Bull, the top-ranked sprinter in the country, and who is to start this Saturday in the Smile Sprint Handicap, better start looking over his shoulder. Street Boss, Lucky Island, and the

3-year-old J Be K were already highly regarded members of this division. But weekend stakes scores by each make them upwardly mobile threats to division leadership.

Street Boss made Saturday's Grade 1 Triple Bend at Hollywood his fourth straight win and fifth from his last six starts. And this one might have been the most impressive of the bunch, considering the way he confidently ran around everyone at a considerable loss of ground.

Lucky Island and J Be K used their speed on Friday to record dominating victories in the Grade 2 Tom Fool at Belmont and the Grade 3 Jersey Shore at Monmouth, respectively. The Tom Fool was the once-beaten Lucky Island's fourth straight win, while the Jersey Shore made J Be K 5 for 5 in races at seven furlongs or shorter.