Zenyatta, meanwhile, did her part to prolong the rivalry, easily winning her seasonal debut in Saturday's Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita.
Rachel Alexandra, unraced since winning the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga on Sept. 5, stalked the pace in Saturday's $200,000 New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds, made her move turning for home but was unable to hold off the winning surge of Zardana, who went on to win by 3/4 length with Rachel Alexandra holding second.
Ironically, Zardana is a stablemate of Zenyatt's in the barn of trainer John Shirreffs.
"We had a picture-perfect trip," said winning rider David Flores. "The strategy was simply to get her to relax and John said she would get the job done. I got after her pretty hard coming home. But she's a real warrior."
The focus, however, was on Rachel Alexandra, who had won eight straight races. Trainer Steve Asmussen blamed himself and his training of the champion up to her return.
"It was a lack in fitness," Asmussen said. "It's our job to have her there and I didn't do it."
Sunday, Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson, nixed the April 9 Apple Blossom showdown at Oaklawn Park, which would have been for a $5 million purse
"Yesterday's race, while a disappointment, helped us define Rachel Alexandra's racing condition," Jackson said in a statement. "While she is healthy, just as I had anticipated, she is not in top form. Therefore, I decided today she will not be going" to the Oaklawn race.
"We have a whole season before us to help define her greatness," he added. "She will tell us when her next race will be."
Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, said he is "disappointed that we're not going to be able to face each other in the Apple Blossom. Hopefully, we can meet down the line." He said Zenyatta will start in the Apple Blossom anyway.
Zenyatta, who contended for Horse of the Year honors by upsetting a top field in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, had no trouble in her comeback. After typically racing last early, jockey Mike Smith negotiated the resulting traffic, dove down to the rail and Zenyatta responded with enthusiasm, easily passing the leaders to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Dance to My Tune and Floating Heart were second and third at boxcar odds.
"This was a great, great race for her and it wasn't taxing at all," said winning rider Mike Smith. Both Smith and co-owner Jerry Moss said, unlike Rachel Alexandra's connections, the Saturday race set their horse up for a showdown.
"We got enough out of this race to move forward," Smith said.
"I'm sorry she lost," Moss added, referring to Rachel Alexandra. "But she lost to a better horse. We'll see what happens in the next race. Hopefully, she'll come back a stronger racehorse in a month, and we'll see the real Rachel, so to speak."
The Kentucky Derby trail:
While the Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra set-to was taking the headlines, some of the nation's top 3-year-olds were getting their second-to-last prep for potential Kentucky Derby berths.
-- In the $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, trainer Bob Baffert's top Derby hope, Lookin At Lucky, made his seasonal debut – and his first start on real dirt – a winning one, coming from off the pace to beat fellow California shipper Noble's Promise by a head. Dublin was third. Lookin At Lucky, second to Vale of York in the Breeders' Cup in his only career loss, finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.06 under Garrett Gomez. The winner, a Kentucky-bred Smart Strike colt, also had some traffic problems, checking off the heels of Noble's Promise when the latter came out with about a half mile to run. "He's a horse that can overcome," Baffert said. "He's a great athlete and a great horse. He has that will to win, which is half the battle." Comparing Lookin At Lucky to one of his all-time great, Silver Charm, Baffert added, "You know he's going to show up every time." Kenny McPeek, who trains Noble's Promise, said, "That other horse just has our number." Noble's Promise now has finished one place behind Lookin At Lucky in three straight races. Baffert said he is still looking at the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Arkansas Derby as Lookin At Lucky's final Kentucky Derby prep. McPeek said Noble's Promise is ticketed for the Arkansas Derby.
-- At Santa Anita, Sidney's Candy backed up his victory in last month's San Vicente with a front-running win in Saturday's $150,000 San Felipe, the final local prep for the Santa Anita Derby. With Joe Talamo aboard, the Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt led the way and held on to win by 1/2 length over Interactif with Caracortado suffering his first career defeat, finishing third. "The plan was to get to the lead, relax and kick when they came to him," Talamo said. "We knew last summer he was a quality horse. The way he did this today was so impressive. He has the demeanor of an older horse." Trainer John Sadler said the plan is to run Sidney's Candy back in the Santa Anita Derby. He now has three wins from five career starts.
-- Odysseus stalked the pace in the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs, then got to the inside in deep stretch and was just up in time to beat Schoolyard Dreams by a nose. The favorite, Super Saver, had the early lead, surrendered grudgingly and held on for third, another 1/2 length back. With Rajiv Maragh up, the Kentucky-bred Malibu Moon colt got the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.31. The fact this was Odysseus's first stakes win did not deter owner Satish Sanan's ambitions. "We're going to leave it to Tommy (Albertrani, Odysseus's trainer)," he said. "We might look at the Wood Memorial, but now we don't have to win that. If he decides that we go straight to the Derby, well, we're going to leave it in this guy's (Albertrani's) hands." Albertrani said "the sky's the limit" for Odysseus, adding, "We'll see if we need to run him back again or just sit and wait. It takes a lot of pressure off to have the graded earnings at this point. If he had been second, we'd be forced to run him run him back again" to ensure he had enough earning to guarantee him a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.
Kentucky Oaks preps
-- Diva Delite sat off the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs, circled four-wide into the stretch and got away to win by 2 lengths over C C's Pal. Mallory Square finished third. Diva Delite, a Florida-bred daughter of Repent, finished the 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.10 with Rosemary Homeister Jr. in the irons. "She wanted to go after them as we got past the half mile pole," Homeister said. "But when I asked her to go she just went past everybody in about five strides." Winning trainer David Vivian was vacillating in the winner's circle about a Kentucky Oaks attempt, saying he's leaning against it. "I think. You never know what you're going to do. Right now I don't know exactly what I'm going to do." He said the filly already has had a hard campaign. "She looks excellent, though," he added. "So I'm just going to play it by ear."
-- No Such Word waited behind rivals at the quarter pole in Saturday's $125,000 Honybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park, found room through her rivals and got home first by 2 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Beautician. Tap Tap Tapping danced home third. No Such Word, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Canadian Frontier, finished the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.74 with Terry Thompson up for trainer Cindy Jones.
In other weekend racing:
You and I Forever swept five-wide into the stretch and went on to upset Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Motovato. Cool Coal Man stalked the pace, led briefly and held on for third while the favorite, This One's For Phil, struggled home eighth. You and I Forever, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of A.P. Indy, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.83. "We had a plan going into the race," said winning rider Javier Castellano. "There was a lot of speed in there and I wanted to be mid-pack and wait for the horses to come back to me and just let my horse finish, and it worked out exactly that way. They went pretty quick, and I was able to sit just off the speed." John Velazquez said This One's For Phil couldn't handle the distance. "I thought I had things set up perfectly," he said. "But by the quarter pole, I was out of horse."
Warbling led all the way to a 3 3/4-lengths victory in Sunday's $200,000 Inside Information Stakes for fillies and mares. Tar Heel Mom was second, well in front of Thunders Dove. Warbling, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Unbridled's Song filly, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.92 with Julien Leparoux in the irons. "There are races ahead for her doing what she's been doing," said winning trainer Eddie Kenneally. "The Humana on Derby Day at Churchill Downs is a goal."
Jessica Is Back dominated five rivals in Saturday's $75,000 Ocala Stakes for fillies and mares, never trailing and drawing off at the end to win by 9 lengths. Many Kisses was the best of the rest with Glotona third. Jessica Is Back, a 6-year-old, Florida-bred Put It Back mare, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.71 with Elvis Trujillo in the irons.
Tampa Bay Downs
Phola came from last of six to win Saturday's $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes by 4 1/4 lengths over Cure For Sale. Liberally finished third. Phola, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Johannesburg filly, came around the field on the turn in her winning move under urging from Ramon Dominguez. She finished the "about" 9 furlongs on "good" turf in 1:52.51. "This filly settled nicely for me and I was pretty sure the speed would come back to us," Dominguez said. "But we were farther back than I had expected. Then when I asked for run she just flew up at the lead group and really impressed me with her run though the stretch." The co-owners said they expect trainer Todd Pletcher to take Phola to Keeneland, then Churchill Downs and look for a stakes spot for her.
Sneaking Uponyou did just that in Saturday's $75,000 Turf Dash, trailing early and then advancing through the turn and into the stretch before getting loose to win by 3 lengths. Probation Ready was second as the favorite, a neck in front of pacesetter Twiceasbeautiful. Sneaking Uponyou, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred Snuck In gelding, ran the 5 furlongs on "good" turf in 58.11 seconds with Huber Villa-Gomez in the irons.
Sweet Goodbye said goodbye to her rivals early in Saturday's $75,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred distaffers, leading a good part of the way and winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Call of a Lion was second and All Giving finished third. Sweet Goodbye, the odds-on favorite, ran the 7 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:23.85.
Timeless Fashion dueled for the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Tejano Run Stakes, then held off another challenger late to win by 1/2 length. Forest Attack was second and the early pace-presser, Slick Pardoned Me, finished third. Timeless Fashion, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred Sky Classic gelding, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:52.82 with James Lopez riding.
Super Satin, eighth with just 400 meters to go, surged to victory in Sunday's HK$16 million Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby, beating Super Pistachio by a head. Brave Kid was third and Beauty Flash, with Frankie Dettori up, finished fourth. "It's a dream come true," said winning trainer Caspar Fownes. "On paper this looked like the toughest Derby for years, as well as the most open. When the owner said to me months ago that we were going to win it with this horse, I just looked at him as though to ask 'What are you on?' But he was right, and on the day I knew I couldn't have got my horse any better." He said he hasn't decided what's next for Super Satin, noting he's "been up all season and won five."
In the day's other Group 1 race, Happy Zero held off Fellowship to win the Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup by a head. The battle was nip and tuck virtually to the wire. Winning trainer John Moore said he thinks the Champions Mile next month at Sha Tin, followed by a try at the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot might be a nice path for the spring and summer for Happy Zero. And winning owner David Boehm, who picked up his first Group 1 win, added, "It's exciting to think of going to the Golden Jubilee and taking on the best horses in the world. It really shows Hong Kong is on the map internationally."