Rachel, Zenyatta prepare for season debuts Saturday

Every hotel in the Hot Springs, Ark., area is booked, and if you want a reserved seat at Oaklawn Park for April 9, you'd better be prepared to bid high on eBay.

The mere chance that Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and undefeated champion Zenyatta will finally look one another in the eye in the $5 million Apple Blossom Invitational next month has set off the kind of frenzy in the racing community that's usually reserved for when a Triple Crown is on the line.

But in order for the dream matchup to become a reality, the two champions must each clear a hurdle this weekend.

While this is usually the time of year to follow the progress of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, even the top slate of prep races Saturday could be overshadowed by Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. who will each make their season debuts on the same day.

In what will be her first start since defeating older males in the Grade I Woodward Stakes on Sept. 5, Rachel Alexandra faces four challengers in the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies over 11⁄16-miles at Fair Grounds. Zenyatta headlines a field of nine in the Grade I Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita, her first start since beating males in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7.

Should each emerge from Saturday's debuts in good order, their potential showdown in the 11⁄8-mile Apple Blossom would be one step closer to happening.

Before the clash comes to fruition, however, both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta need to show they are ready to tackle the toughest opponent of their careers next month.

"I think she's going to run big first time back. I mean she's really ready," Zenyatta's jockey Mike Smith said during a national teleconference Tuesday. "She's ready for something right now and she's certainly training like it anyway. I'm really looking forward to it."

"She's not 100-percent fit for this and we're aware of that," said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Rachel Alexandra, about the filly's preparation. "She's had six works in six months. But she's a very physical horse; she is Rachel."

In addition to having 10 works since her last race compared to Rachel Alexandra's six, Zenyatta is well versed in running big off a lengthy layoff, having captured the Grade II Milady Handicap last May 23 after a near eight-month hiatus.

"I know it sounds funny but I really think she's getting better," Smith said of the 6-year-old mare.

Rachel Alexandra's six-month break is nearly twice as long as any in her career. Though Asmussen admitted to being "very concerned about her fitness level" earlier in the week, the natural ability the 4-year-old filly possesses is enough to instill confidence in her camp.

"We're happy with where she's at," Asmussen said last week. "The main thing is she's healthy and this is a step in the process to getting her back to her previous level."

Though both are heavy favorites to win Saturday, there will be challenges.

Grade II winner Zaradana — trained by John Shirreffs, who also trains Zenyatta — is among Rachel Alexandra's four challengers in the New Orleans Ladies and was undefeated on dirt in her native Brazil.

Zenyatta will be carrying the highweight of 127 pounds in the Santa Margarita, 12 to 19 pounds more than her rivals.

"Fortunately for us, she's a big mare and she carries the weight very well, so hopefully it won't bother her too much," Smith said. "All we're worried about right now is just getting her back to this first race Saturday and go from there.

"(The Apple Blossom) is going to be one of the most watched races in history, to tell you the truth, if we're fortunate enough to both get there."