Countdown to the Cup: Zenyatta's Turn

Countdown to the Cup: Zenyatta's Turn
Photo: Benoit
Zenyatta won the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on August 9.
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Now that Rachel Alexandra is through for the year, it is time for Zenyatta, the defending Queen of all Turfdom, to take center stage, and her presence will be a welcome sight in a year where the Breeders’ Cup has gone a bit haywire.

 

Because Zenyatta’s races this year have been few and far between, while competing in the same three stakes (the grade I Lady’s Secret will be No. 4) in which she ran last year, she has not received the publicity that Rachel Alexandra has, despite her unbeaten record and magnificent conquests last year. Many racing fans, especially those removed from California, have been so caught up in the Rachel Rage they see Zenyatta only in terms of how she would fare against a phantom rival whom she likely will never face.

 

Many have allowed Rachel’s epic victories to cloud the sharp, larger-than-life image they once had of the mighty Zenyatta. They now see her mainly as the victor of seemingly mundane races against questionable competition and feel her connections have squandered the opportunity to truly stamp her greatness.

 

That is a total misconception. The fact that Zenyatta is still racing and still unbeaten and headed to another Breeders’ Cup at age five is cause for celebration. Have people forgotten her explosive move in this year’s Vanity Handicap (gr. I) to defeat her talented stablemate Life is Sweet, who was good enough to rally from last to finish third in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I)? Just watch Mike Smith take the bait and go for an opening on the rail, and then watch Zenyatta pull right back out of there, turn on the afterburners and inhale her opponents in the blink of an eye, while carrying 129 pounds and conceding 15 pounds to the runner-up. It was an extraordinary performance that should be placed right up there with her already impressive list of accomplishments.

 

Although some found fault with her desperate head victory in the Clement Hirsch (gr. I), the fact that she was able to overcome a ridiculous 1:13 3/5 three-quarters and still rally from 13 lengths back to win on sheer determination made this another of her most memorable performances – one which had the Del Mar crowd standing and cheering. The filly who finished a close third, Lethal Heat, came right back to finish third, beaten two lengths, in the Del Mar Mile (gr. IIT) against males.

 

Zenyatta’s target all along has been the Breeders’ Cup, whether the Classic or the Ladies Classic. If she can defeat Cocoa Beach and the others in the Lady’s Secret, perhaps it will help bring back her legions of fans across the country, who had no reason to desert her in the first place. Then the decision will be made whether she attempts another victory in the Ladies Classic or reaches for greater heights in the Classic.

 

Regardless of how one feels she measures up against Rachel Alexandra or whether she has taken the path of least resistance so far, the fact is she is the same Zenyatta racing fans revered last year.

 

There is still speculation whether she has any chance of snatching Horse of the Year honors away from Rachel Alexandra. That is immaterial. All that is important right now is her final two starts this year and the impact she makes on the Breeders’ Cup. The rest will take care of itself.

 

It is true that the Queen’s reign has been confined to a single kingdom, and she has not attempted to expand her domain, other than a brief journey to Arkansas early last year. But that is due in part to the Breeders’ Cup being held at Santa Anita two years in a row. She did attempt to put herself on display in front of America on Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) day this year, but weather prevented that from happening.

 

There is no more conscientious trainer than John Shirreffs and no greater sportsmen than Jerry and Ann Moss. The bottom line is that Shirreffs and the Mosses have gotten her in a position where she is ready to launch her second attack on the Breeders’ Cup, so they have achieved that goal.

 

Now it’s just a question of how ambitious they want to be in establishing her legacy. If they decide on the Ladies Classic, you can be sure there will be dissenters, feeling they took the easy way out. But the Ladies Classic likely will draw a deep, contentious field of fillies and mares, several of whom have decimated their opposition in major stakes this year. Regardless of where she runs, if Zenyatta wins her final two starts, and does not race again, she will retire undefeated in 14 starts, with 12 straight grade I or II victories and two Breeders’ Cup wins. Regardless of how one looks at it, that is greatness.

 

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Speaking of the Ladies Classic, Andrew Rosen’s 11th hour decision to bypass Saturday’s Beldame Stakes (gr. I) with Icon Project and wait for the following week’s Spinster Stakes (gr. I) because he feels the Polytrack would be more beneficial in preparing his filly for Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride may be based on a false premise.

 

The ability to handle Polytrack does not necessarily mean a horse will handle Pro-Ride. Last year, Carriage Trail romped by 7 3/4 lengths in the Spinster, but could do no better than fourth in the Ladies Classic. Of course, she just may not have been good enough, but, in all, horses coming off Keeneland’s Polytrack were 0-for-7 in the Breeders’ Cup. Horses having run on Turfway’s Polytrack were 0-for-3. Of these 10 horses combined, seven finished out of the money at Santa Anita.

 

Now, this may be inconclusive, as three horses that ran on Polytrack did finish second in the Breeders’ Cup, including Juvenile (gr. I) and Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) runners-up Square Eddie   and Dream Empress, respectively. But there certainly is no evidence that prepping on Polytrack helps prepare a horse for Pro-Ride. And there is no guarantee that Icon Project, despite her grass background, will handle the Polytrack. Many top-class horses do not. Last year, Unbridled Belle was the 5-2 favorite in the Spinster, despite trying Polytrack for the first time, and never ran a step, finishing ninth of 10, beaten 14 1/2 lengths.

 

Only time will tell if Rosen’s decision was a good one.

 

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Team Valor’s Gitano Hernando, who broke the track record for 1 1/16 miles on Wolverhamption’s all-weather course in his last start, will run next in the Goodwood BC Stakes (gr. I) Oct. 10 and jockey Kieren Fallon will fly from Ireland for the mount.

 

"Admittedly, it looks like we are putting the cart before the horse," said Team Valor's Barry Irwin. "The colt really wants a minimum of 10 furlongs in top company and has not even won a stakes. This is the colt we had earmarked for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) until he was jarred on hard turf last May. But he does appear to be somewhat of a synthetic-track specialist and that is why we want to try him over the surface that the Breeders' Cup will be run on.

 

“He tracked the leaders going a mile and a sixteenth in his comeback and easily had them in his sights while racing against the bridle. He is far from being a dead head over the shorter trip now that he is more mature. Kieren thinks a lot of him and the fact that he would consider coming to ride him in California has emboldened us.”

 

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Jamie Theriot being taken off Dublin after winning the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) on the colt had to have brought back unpleasant memories. In 2002, Theriot was taken off a 3-year-old colt named War Emblem, on whom he had won an allowance race at Fair Grounds by 4 1/2 lengths before finishing unplaced in the LeComte and Risen Star (gr. III) Stakes. War Emblem, of course, was later sold to the Thoroughbred Corp. and Theriot would have been taken off him anyway. But if Dublin should go on to win next year's Run for the Roses, he can at least boast of having ridden two Kentucky Derby winners.

 

 

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Racing’s biggest stakes extravaganza begins Saturday and will continue through Oct. 11, after which we will have a better idea how the Breeders’ Cup races are shaping up. To demonstrate just how drastically this year’s Breeders’ Cup picture has been altered by last year’s results and having it at Santa Anita again, we have the best grass horse in America, Gio Ponti  , possibly prepping for the Classic in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT). We already have the two best European male milers – Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman -- heading for the Classic, as well as an eclectic group of dirt, grass, and synthetic horses. And there is still the possibility of getting the world’s best grass horse, Sea the Stars, for the Classic.

 

 

 

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