04/08/2010 11:00PM

Zenyatta owns every possible edge

Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta will be an overwhelming favorite to extend her unbeaten streak to 16 races in Friday's Apple Blossom.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Any way you measure it, Zenyatta towers over her four rivals Friday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.

She has never been beaten in 15 starts. They have been defeated 40 times.

She has earned $5,624,580. They can't scrounge up $1.3 million among them.

She stands slightly more than 17 hands tall and weighs some 1,200 pounds. They average 16 hands in height and 1,100 pounds.

But races aren't won by statistics. Zenyatta must go out and prove herself all over again Friday. And for her, the stakes just keep getting higher. On Friday, she can match the feat of 16 straight wins at an elite level that has characterized the careers of Citation, Cigar, and Mister Frisky. And she won't be doing it from the comfort of her home circuit. Zenyatta will be making only her second start outside of Southern California, and thus her second start on dirt. Her first dirt start came when she won the 2008 Apple Blossom.

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"We're kind of anxious," said John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta for Jerry and Ann Moss. "It's been a long time.

"The thing we have in our favor is Zenyatta. That's a big edge."

Zenyatta was voted champion older filly or mare of 2009 after winning the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in November. She gave the boys a head start in the 1 1/4-mile race after a sluggish break, then unleashed a memorable rally to win by a length. Zenyatta has raced once since then, overcoming traffic in the stretch to win the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita in her first start of the year March 13.

"She was stuck behind horses and she had to make a little zig-zag move through traffic, but she got through and won nicely," Shirreffs said. "I was a little concerned, but sometimes it opens up late for horses, so with patience there's usually some way to get through."

The Apple Blossom, a 1 1/8-mile race for fillies and mares, has also attracted Grade 3 winners Be Fair, War Echo, and Just Jenda. The field is rounded out by Taptam, a stakes winner at the meet who on Wednesday was scratched from the $100,000 Bayakoa. It is a group of rivals that is very respectful of the task they face Friday.

"I think any mare in the world would have their hands full against this mare," Cindy Jones, who trains Just Jenda, said of Zenyatta. "But if we can run second, we can say, 'I ran second to probably the best mare ever in racing.' "

"I hope Be Fair doesn't hate me for going against Zenyatta," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of his horse, a petite front-runner. "I might put full-cup blinkers on her and cover her up completely until they get to the gate so she doesn't see Zenyatta."

Be Fair and Just Jenda won't be helped by the fact Zenyatta shipped in quite well, spending some of her time in Arkansas grazing and sipping the Fiji bottled water that accompanies her whenever she travels. In addition, she has had the chance to train on a dirt training track back home at Hollywood Park in preparation for Friday. That fact and the excellent race she ran over this track in 2008 help erase most surface concerns, said Shirreffs.

"She handled it so well before," he said.

"Running on a slightly different surface, I don't know where she'll be placed, but I imagine she'll be in the back somewhere and then make her run."

Zenyatta and her regular rider, Mike Smith, should get an honest pace, thanks to Be Fair, the speed from the rail, and Taptam and Just Jenda, who should press matters. From there, it should be all Zenyatta

The Apple Blossom is part of the Racing Festival of the South, when $2.8 million in stakes are decided over the final week of the meet, which ends Saturday. The race had the potential to be worth $5 million, had Rachel Alexandra, the reigning Horse of the Year, been in the starting gate with Zenyatta on Friday. It would have been the first matchup of the two, but last month the connections of Rachel Alexandra announced she would pass the race.

The showdown will have to wait, but Zenyatta's appearance kicks off what has the potential to be one of the biggest closing weekends in the history of Oaklawn. Saturday, the track will run the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

"We're pretty much going to plan for two really huge days," said Eric Jackson, the general manager of Oaklawn. "I think anything above 30,000 [on Friday] makes it extraordinary."

Oaklawn annually draws more than 50,000 for the Arkansas Derby.

Oaklawn plans to open the infield for both days. HRTV will have onsite coverage of the Apple Blossom, which has a scheduled post of 6:25 p.m. Central.

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