10/31/2009 5:57PM

The Last Hurrah


While watching Zenyatta work at Hollywood Park Saturday morning, I was struck by two thoughts. Others came along later, but two at a time is a challenging load, so I figured I'd better write them down:

1) There was a day, and not too long ago, when the debate over the best horses did not digress into which surface they liked or disliked, and b) that was Zenyatta's last work.

To the first point, those who have only recently joined the conversation will assume that the advent of synthetic tracks ignited the wildfire of opinions, excuses, and handicapping angles when it comes to a horse handling a surface, or not. In fact,it has been more than a quarter of a century since modern track superintendents began tinkering with their dirt tracks, sealing them, ripping them, and power-harrowing them to death in an ongoing attempt to turn back the ravages of wear and time. The policy created, often quite by accident, definitive swings in the depth and texture of the ground, and helped institutionalize the concept of track bias.

Z work In simpler times, the good ones didn't care. Turf, dirt, mud, molasses--it did not matter to horses like Kelso, Damascus, Dr. Fager and Ack Ack, and it probably wouldn't have mattered to Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, but they never got the chance to try the grass. Sure, Round Table got a rap for floundering on soft turf, but he also won major stakes on every other kind of ground, coast to coast, from 7 to 13 furlongs, for four solid seasons--so cut him some slack. In fact, it was only later that Cigar became the poster boy for surface sissies. He was barely a Grade 3 animal on the grass, for which he was supposedly bred, yet a two-time Horse of the year and Hall of Famer on dirt...any dirt. He ended up winning on nine different dirt courses, and where he lost--Del Mar and Woodbine--it wasn't the surface to blame.

It is a crying shame that Zenyatta's record will be forever asterisked by the 13 out of 14 races she will have run over synthetic surfaces. There have been several comments from readers of this site noting quite correctly that those 14 races have come over a wide variety of synthetic products and conditions. Unfortunately, such esoterica tends to fall on deaf ears in the current, polarized climate. And, unless synthetic surfaces become the norm (what are the odds?), history will not care.

What matters now is that the rest of this week be spent savoring every possible sighting of Zenyatta, from her final gallops at Hollywood, to her crosstown return to Santa Anita on Wednesday, and then to her valedictory appearance in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday afternoon. Her nifty workout Saturday morning was "picture perfect," according to Steve Willard, her regular morning rider who was aboard workmate Green Cat. Willard then offered to draw the picture in the shedrow sand.

In the photo above, Zenyatta and Mike Smith are just coming off the track in the company of Freddy Miller and his pony, who answers to Hooty. "We got him a couple years ago from Carla Gaines, just for Zenyatta," Miller explained. "We had two other ponies, but she intimidated them so bad they'd both kick at her. She can do anything to Hooty and he just don't care." Miller has been around good mares long enough to call Zenyatta the best he's seen since Drumtop, the daughter of Round Table he galloped for Roger Laurin. Drumtop, a foal of '66, beat the boys for fun in races like the Canadian International Championship, the Hialeah Turf Cup, and the Bowling Green.

We'll find out Saturday if Zenyatta can join the ranks of mares like Drumtop, Shuvee, Gallorette, All Along and Miesque, by beating the best bunch of mature males the game can offer. And by concentrating on that sticky question for now, the poignant reality of her final appearance will be deferred. Zenyatta still has a lot of work to do. For the good ones, to the very last, that's the way it should be.