Countdown to the Cup: Where to Begin?
How does one even attempt to discuss in detail last weekend’s stakes extravaganza? And what words are left to describe the Zenyatta phenomenon that haven’t already been used?
Between the passion and energy radiating from the crowd, the cheers, the bedlam, and the kaleidoscope of colorful signs, all that was missing was an announcement following the Lady’s Secret (gr. I): “Zenyatta has left the building.”
You didn’t even have to be there. The jolt of electricity that Zenyatta and her fervid fans emitted could be felt 3,000 miles away.
Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs, wife of trainer John Shirreffs and the racing manager for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, put it as succinctly as possible: “Zenyatta truly is a gift, in more ways than I can say.”
There you have it. The gift that is Zenyatta is so all-encompassing it cannot even be put into words by those closest to her.
And by now we are well aware it is a study in futility analyzing her races in the conventional sense. You want analysis? OK here it is. Zenyatta is last. Zenyatta is circling horses. Zenyatta (on occasion) looks beaten. Oh, never mind, false alarm…again. Zenyatta wins with her ears straight up. What was the time? Who cares? What was the margin? Who cares? Who did she beat? Who cares?
Did she do her dance before the race? Did she stop dead in her tracks in front of the crowd after the race, waiting to be showered with applause? Did she paw at the ground in the winner’s circle? Yes, yes, and yes. Case closed. Analysis completed.
When the same exact routine is repeated three or four times it is repetitive. When it’s repeated 19 times it’s a habit.
When you get right down to it, how could Zenyatta have lost the Lady’s Secret with all that passion pouring out of the stands and into the paddock? How could the tears of joy shed by so many people who are deeply affected by her mere presence turn into tears of unmitigated sorrow? That’s like going to see Caruso sing and have him lose his voice in the middle of an aria.
So, instead of dissecting the fractions and times and margins and all that drivel, just add the Lady’s Secret to Zenyatta’s already voluminous scrapbook. The next time you open it on Nov. 6 your hands probably will be trembling too much to even turn to the next page. You have five weeks to envision what will be on that next page.
When you do, just think of the opening scene of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Sunday in the Park With George,” the story of artist George Seurat, where the first words that introduce the play are, “White. A blank page or canvas…So many possibilities.”
Before we get to the amazing smorgasbord of stakes we were treated to over the weekend, we have to briefly address -- with a chuckle -- Andy Beyer getting booed at a Hollywood Park handicapping seminar Saturday following his, let’s say, skeptical column regarding the greatness of Zenyatta. Beyer gave his opinion, which is what he does, and you have to admire him for entering the lion’s den while carrying slabs of raw meat in his front pockets. That’s like writing an unflattering column on Caligula right before your trip to Rome.
OK, we had to get that out of the way.
There were so many outstanding performances we’ll just toss some quick thoughts on several of them, and save a few for next week.
Despite the defeat of Blame in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) picture actually became more focused. Blame had no chance to win the Gold Cup over the Belmont conveyor belt after Haynesfield was allowed to cruise the first three-quarters in a lethargic 1:13.24. Despite never really getting into the race and becoming a bit lost around that sweeping turn, he still cut into Haynesfield’s big lead enough to be beaten a respectable four lengths. This was a good prep for the Classic and he’ll relish a return to the friendly confines of Churchill Downs, where he’s been virtually unbeatable.
Don’t think, however, that Haynesfield’s theft of the Gold Cup was some fly-by-night caper. This is a very talented colt who is just now hitting his peak, and he certainly doesn’t need to be on the lead. He has great tactical speed and is just as effective stalking the leaders. The Gold Cup scenario put him on the lead and he obliged.
If you’re shocked to see a son of Speightstown not only win at 1 ¼ miles, but win off by himself, take a close look at this colt’s female family. His second dam, Moody Maiden, is a half-sister to Passing Mood, the dam of Belmont (gr. I) and Haskell (gr. I) winner Touch Gold and Canadian Triple Crown winner With Approval.
Also remember that although Speightstown was a sprinter, his sire, Gone West, sired a Belmont winner (Commendable), and Gone West’s sire, Mr. Prospector, sired a Belmont winner (Conquistador Cielo). Speightstown’s broodmare sire, Storm Cat, also sired a Belmont winner (Tabasco Cat), and Speightstown is inbred to Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Add names like Round Table, Buckpasser, Native Dancer, Nashua, Deputy Minister, and Tim Tam to Haynefield’s pedigree and his ability to get 10 furlongs should not be a that much of a surprise.
Another beaten horse in the Gold Cup who is headed for the Classic is third-place finisher Fly Down, who also was compromised by the slow pace and possibly the track, which had a good deal of moisture in it, and he, too, should improve at Churchill Downs, but he needs to learn how to change leads.
Moving on to the other Classic preps, Lookin At Lucky, a May 27 foal, is really getting good right now, and he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Classic following his last-to-first charge in the Indiana Derby (gr. II) over a very sloppy track. He didn’t beat much and will be stepping up in the Classic, but the boy we saw in the winter and spring has turned into a man and he just wants to win, no matter how he goes about it. He’s actually always shown the will to win, but now he knows how to get it done. As we’ve seen, he can beat you sitting right up close to the pace or he can come from dead-last, as he did on Saturday. Unlike most of the other top colts, he has a quick turn of foot that can put him right into contention whenever jockey Martin Garcia wants.
Finally, we come to the Goodwood Stakes (gr. I), and Bob Baffert locked in his second Classic starter when two-time Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Richard’s Kid turned in a strong inside move to win the Goodwood. He ran well enough on dirt for trainer Richard Small to suggest he’ll handle it again and simply is a far better horse now than he was back in his Maryland days. Although he had a dream trip, you had to love the quickness of his stride as he moved from last to first.
Runner-up Crown of Thorns ran a huge race going two turns for the first time since Feb. 2008. He did show a lot of early speed, and trainer Dick Mandella said he most likely will cut back in distance for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I).
That race also received another big boost when Tizway, making his first start since finishing a solid third in the Met Mile (gr. I), ran off with the one-mile Kelso Handicap (gr. II), on dirt this year, winning by five lengths in a sprightly 1:34.42. The son of Tiznow looked exceptionally strong down the lane, striding out with great authority. To put it simply, this is a very good horse whose campaign has been compromised by physical issues and who is now ready to put it all together.
Life After Rachel
OK, let’s do the math. Take nothing away from Life At Ten’s workmanlike victory in the Beldame (gr. I), but she gets run into the ground by Rachel Alexandra in the Personal Ensign (gr. I), finishing 10 lengths behind her. The Beldame sets up perfectly for Rachel’s running style. How can you not wonder what Rachel would have done had she not been retired, coming off three bullet works. Was she injured? Did she bleed? Were her feet acting up? Or did Jess Jackson simply wake up one morning and decide to retire her? As long as Jackson keeps the reason for her retirement to himself and keeps Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi under a gag order, we’re always going to wonder. Her devoted fans deserved more.
Life At Ten will now go into the Ladies Classic (gr. I) as one of the favorites, and rightly so.
If you want to know how difficult it is for any horse, especially a closer, to remain undefeated for even half as long as Zenyatta has, just look at the record of Blind Luck, one of the gamest and most consistent closers you’ll ever see. But when you have no control over the pace, the weight spread, and scenario of a race, you occasionally have to bite the bullet and accept defeat when everything works against you.
For Blind Luck, that was the case in the Hollywood Oaks (gr. II) earlier in the year against Switch, and it was the case again in the Fitz Dixon Cotillion (gr. II) against Havre de Grace. Blind Luck, making an incredible fifth cross-country trip this year, was at a disadvantage in a five-horse field, dropping back in distance from 1 ¼ miles to 1 1/16 miles, and conceding 10 pounds to Havre de Grace, a talented filly with great tactical speed whom she had defeated by a neck at equal weights in the Alabama Stakes (gr. I).
Racing in last, almost eight lengths off the pace, Blind Luck, as usual, came flying late. Havre de Grace had easily disposed of the pacesetting Bonnie Blue Flag and opened a 3 ½-length lead at the eighth pole. But Blind Luck kept cutting into her lead with every stride, falling a neck short, despite coming home her final five-sixteenths in a sensational :28 4/5. It was a race like this that makes you appreciate what Zenyatta has been able to accomplish. And it also makes you appreciate a horse as resilient and game as Blind Luck, who is a throwback, putting on more miles in six months than most horses put on in their entire career.
And let’s not forget Havre de Grace, who is getting better with every start and was a deserving winner after suffering three straight narrow defeats, all in stakes company.
Bring on the Euros
In the major turf stakes, Winchester and Paddy O’Prado, the one-two finishers in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT), and Clement Hirsch (gr. IT) winner Champ Pegasus all turned in huge efforts from far off the pace and all look to be worthy defenders when the Europeans come calling on Nov. 6. The 3-year-old Paddy O’Prado might have moved a tad too soon, while Winchester got the last run on him, but he showed a mile and a half is well within his scope, even on the bog-like ground he encountered at Belmont. He should only improve at Churchill.
Champ Pegasus has proved to be a relentless closer who has won four of his last five starts, and is still lightly raced with only eight career starts. And don’t forget runner-up Where’s the Remote, who also was flying late in his stakes debut and in only his sixth career start. Third-place finisher Bourbon Bay was beaten only a length in his first start since April 18. He had been riding a four-race winning streak that included three grade II victories.
And this was a race where they went the first three-quarters in 1:14, with Champ Pegasus coming home his last half in a blistering :45 3/5.
Juvenile filly fest
The most explosive run of the entire weekend was turned in by Winter Memories, who annihilated her opponents in the Miss Grillo Stakes (gr. IIIT) on turf with an amazing ninth to first move that carried her to 5 ¼-length score. She went by the leaders like they were standing still, and to demonstrate the enormity of her victory, her time for the 1 1/16 miles was more than two full seconds faster than the colts went in the Pilgrim Stakes (gr. IIIT) the race before.
And on the dirt, Rigoletta, turned in the gutsiest performance of the weekend when she refused to let 1-2 favorite Tell a Kelly get by her in the Oak Leaf Stakes (gr. I). When Tell a Kelly split horses after turning for home and moved on even terms with Rigoletta, who had been pressing the pace the whole way, she looked like she was home free. But Rigoletta kept digging in and turned back every challenge, winning by a neck at 32-1.
Whew! More next week.
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