Zenyatta makes Classic case for HOY

Nov 10, 2009 5:01 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Zenyatta won the battle, but did she win the war? In the race for Horse of the Year, Rachel

Alexandra was the leader in the clubhouse, but Zenyatta hit constituents right between the eyes Saturday with her history-making victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, where she defeated males for the first time, finishing her career unbeaten in 14 races, surpassing Personal Ensign’s mark of 13.

Voters have an attention span that rivals third-graders, so in that sense, with Zenyatta’s stirring triumph, Rachel Alexandra slipped in the polls, despite the fact that she had an undefeated 3-year-old season and etched her place in racing lore. She became the first filly to defeat males in the Preakness Stakes in more than eight decades, twice beat fillies by margins hovering around 20 lengths, beat the boys again in the Haskell Invitational and capped a brilliant campaign by defeating older males in the Woodward Stakes.

But she didn’t run on racing’s championship day. Majority owner Jess Jackson chose not to compete on Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride main track. "Plastic" is the word he used to disdainfully describe man-made surfaces, perhaps unable to eradicate the memory of his two-time Horse of the Year Curlin finishing a disappointing fourth on Santa Anita’s synthetic track in last year’s Classic.

Owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs opted to tackle males, rather than have Zenyatta defend her crown in the Ladies’ Classic. More than 58,000 people came to Santa Anita to see her run. And run she did.

Breaking last as usual, after a delay of some 10 minutes when Quality Road threw a fit and would not enter the starting gate, causing him to be scratched, Zenyatta dawdled 12th and last early, picked up steam leaving the half-mile marker, was on a roll leaving the turn for home, and, racing outside for clear sailing, overtook Gio Ponti in the last 70 yards to win the mile and a quarter Classic by a length.

It was a fairytale ending to a perfect career. The magnificent mare, now five, won’t race again. Zenyatta will be bred next year. Rachel Alexandra, however, will race in 2010. She currently is on a break at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where she will gear up for her 4-year-old season.

Although Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra will never do battle on the track, their fight for Horse of the Year will be fierce. "Well, that’s up to you guys, really," Moss said when asked about it at a post-race press conference. "It’s really not up to us. We just brought the horse here. We beat whoever showed up, frankly. She ran her race and won."

Simple enough. Among the Classic also-rans were Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, Santa Anita Handicap winner Einstein and European sensation Rip Van Winkle.

"I’m not taking anything away from that other filly," Moss continued, referring to Rachel Alexandra. "As I’ve always said, she’s ran a tremendous campaign, and they deserve a lot of credit. I think it’s a tough one. So you guys are going to have to figure it out."

Mike Smith was less frivolous when asked about Horse of the Year. "I think it would be a crying shame if she didn’t win it, that’s my opinion," said the Hall of Fame rider who has ridden Zenyatta in her last 11 races.

Added Shirreffs: "Well, as we said earlier, this is a Championship Series of races, and you’ve seen her perform now. So I just hope that the press appreciates what they have seen."

The vote for racing’s First Lady will be a matter of subjectivity, not objectivity. In East versus West, there is passion on both fronts, as in politics. What have you done for me lately? is a powerful aphrodisiac. Harken back to the title fight in which De la Hoya thought he had it won against Trinidad, but danced the crown away in the last round. That’s what the judges remembered, not the first 11 rounds, when The Golden Boy compiled a lead that obviously was not overwhelming.

It will be difficult for Zenyatta to extract good will from the Eastern lobby, one of whose charter members is syndicated columnist Andrew Beyer, whose Daily Racing Form analysis of the Classic included this: "… There are substantial reasons to doubt that she (Zenyatta) can beat male rivals as Rachel Alexandra did in the spring and summer . . . (Zenyatta raced) four times on the synthetic tracks she loves, always against small fields of overmatched fillies and mares. Zenyatta didn’t blow away this competition, and her speed figures were unexceptional … It requires a giant leap of faith to conclude, from her 2009 form, that Zenyatta can beat a Classic field that includes the best U.S. males … and a pair of high-class Europeans. It is preposterous that she is the 5-2 morning line favorite."

Zenyatta paid $7.60 to win.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Zenyatta’s victory that will grow in legend with the passing of time was No. 1 on ESPN’s list of Top 10 plays … Best Breeders’ Cup performances in defeat: Presious Passion in the Turf, Gio Ponti in the Classic and Lookin At Lucky in the Juvenile …. Trevor Denman was never better on his Breeders’ Cup calls, attaining another level in accuracy, anticipation and excitement. That’s why he is the greatest … I miss Richard Pryor.

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Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden