LOUISVILLE — While discussing the progress reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra has made over the last several weeks, trainer Steve Asmussen couldn't help but wear a constant grin as he spoke.
It was the surest sign yet the champion filly may be ready to deliver the kind of performance that had the Eclipse Award-winning trainer smiling for a good part of last season.
A year after delivering one of the most stirring performances ever witnessed at Churchill Downs, Rachel Alexandra returns to the Twin Spires on Friday when she headlines a field of six in the Grade II La Troienne Stakes for fillies and mares 3 years old and up.
The 11⁄16-miles La Troienne is one of five graded stakes races on the undercard of the Grade I Kentucky Oaks.
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On hiatus for six months following her historic victory in the Grade I Woodward Stakes on Sept. 5, Rachel Alexandra was put on an accelerated training schedule by her connections in a bid to have the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro ready for a possible showdown with fellow champion Zenyatta in the Grade I Apple Blossom in April.
But when the bay filly finished second to Grade II winner Zardana in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds on March 13, it was clear her fitness level wasn't where it was when she won all eight of her starts in 2009.
In recent weeks, however, Rachel Alexandra's morning works have begun to look very much like the imposing exercises the racing world had become accustomed to.
If she is anywhere near the form that allowed her to win last season's Kentucky Oaks by a record 201/4 lengths, the Churchill crowd could be treated to another memorable effort Friday.
"What I have is an appreciation of her ability, and I think she's in very good shape," Asmussen said. "We're aware of the fact she hasn't run a race yet equal to many of her races last year, and I'm expecting a step in that direction."
Zardana will line up against Rachel Alexandra again attempting to prove her previous outing was not an aberration. "Zardana's like a pit bull. She tries very hard," said trainer John Shirreffs, who also conditions Zenyatta.
If the past is a guide, the 14 fillies in the Oaks will try to take a step toward greatness.
The last three winners of the race in Rachel, Proud Spell (2008) and Rags to Riches (2007) all went on to be named divisional champions. Rags to Riches and Rachel Alexandra also made history by taking legs of the Triple Crown with the former winning the Belmont and Rachel taking last year's Preakness.
"I've won it twice, but you never get tired of adding the Kentucky Oaks to your résumé," said Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of Grade I winner and this year's Oaks favorite Blind Luck.