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.


Kate H More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately, you didn't have a place to put comments on your beautiful article about the groom, Charles Clay. For those who missed it, here is the link: http://www.drf.com/drfNewsArticle.do?NID=108667&subs=0&arc=0 I was privileged enough to know Charlie Whittingham and what he represented in the greatest years of TB racing in this country. But it took men like Mr. Clay to put Whittingham in the position to achieve the succesful career he had. Thank you for recognizing Clay and the others who are still alive to recognize what he meant to the industry.
David More than 1 year ago
C, To your following comment, "I happen to agree with Crist that synthetic surfaces are not necessarily here to stay...", see my response below: The problem is when they conflate the issue of synthetic surface with downgrading the horses that run on it, as if running on one particular surface (dirt) ranks higher than the other (synthetic). Zenyatta has been caught in the crossfire because she has run primarily on the synthetic tracks. Despite having tied Personal Ensign’s unbeaten record –- the majority Grade I and II races at four different tracks -- and now heading into the Classic against the older horses, Zenyatta’s record is undercut by the anti-synthetic chatter, mainly coming from the East Coast. I am not sure what value derives from the constant anti-synthetic talk; change is not easy for most. The naysayers need to move on to a more constructive tact, one that maybe focuses on improving the East Coast dirt track racing, including better scheduling their major races so that they are not run in the mud/slop, as frequently occurs. Over a period of time there will be objective studies to validate one way or the other the effectiveness of the synthetics versus the dirt tracks. Beyond that, most all of these comments are speculative and counterproductive. (b) "What is so Earth-shattering about this year's Classic field?" I do not think anyone doubts that the Classic will be the most competitive race of the year. I copied below these comments from J. Privman (DRF 11-3): “The Classic field is one of the deepest in the 26-year history of the Breeders' Cup. Zenyatta is the top-ranked female in the country. Rip Van Winkle is widely regarded as the second-best horse in Europe. Gio Ponti is the best turf horse in this country. Summer Bird is the nation's leading 3-year-old colt. The field features the winners this year of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Arlington Million, Pacific Classic, Florida Derby, Super Derby, Hawthorne Gold Cup, and three Group 1 races in Europe.” (c) "How many times has Rachel Alexander raced on the West Coast..." See below response: Alexandra has run zero times on the West Coast. With her front-running style, she appears to relish running on the speed favoring and/or sloppy dirt tracks of the East Coast. Because Alexandra appears to be a mud lark (otherwise the handlers would have scratched her in the Haskell), whose handlers avoid running her on synthetics, does that taint her record? The same critique of running only on certain surfaces made against Zenyatta should apply to Alexandra, for those that want to make the fine distinctions. Alexander has run in many different states, but the races were all on dirt or wet surfaces, not synthetics. With the exception of running in the Preakness, which was organized to showcase the best three year olds, Alexandra ran a series of East Coast dirt races selected by her handlers presumably to build her resume, while avoiding the most competitive race of the year (Breeder’s Cup Classic). (d) "Midnight Lute had a whopping 2 races last year, one of which was a 10th-place finish. Benny The Bull was a no-brainer, not an east-coast bias." See my response below: Benny the Bull ran a ‘whopping’ 4 races; winning only one Grade I race. BTB is a prime example of the East Coast writers’ bias. Midnight Lute, on a wet track (Monmouth), demolished the competition in the Breeder’s Cup Sprint; you are right, the champion should have been a no-brainer, but it wasn’t. If you read the DRF highly subjective weekly rankings, Fabulous Strike will be the Benny the Bull of 2009. Last year, I believe Curlin won 5 times to Zenyatta’s 7; he lost the Breeder’s Cup Classic, and still won HOY. (e) "her best race Beyerwise was against the colts in the Haskell on the speed favoring sloppy track..." All you need to do is read the recent articles on the DRF, and to a lesser extent, the NTRA website, and you will see the opposite of what you are saying. Several East Coast writers have preordained R. Alexandra horse of the year, a premature call made despite and because of the prospect that Zenyatta, and possibly a few other horses, would run in the Classic. They downplayed Zenyatta’s running in the Classic, as if to undermine a potential victory, while making their best case for Alexandra, who dodged the Breeder’s Cup. (f) "I never said anything about the asterisk stuff. You have me mixed up with someone else." The asterisk comment inadvertently referred to a couple of other anti-synthetic comments in this or a previous blog.
grasslover More than 1 year ago
Kate H.- I take no offense at all regarding your statements. All I was saying was run ANYWHERE other than CA, but the track came up sloppy so we won't? If that's indeed the case, why don't we just start cancelling race cards if the skies open up since sloppy tracks are so hurtful to our horses? On a more serious note, I hope you have a very fun and profitable Breeders Cup. Good Luck!
karen tracy More than 1 year ago
Really liked reading the tidbit about Hooty!
Qev More than 1 year ago
@hialeah LMAO!...BRILLIANT!:D
mike More than 1 year ago
She has some of the highest Beyers in this race. Her late running style should help, with at least a few horses going for the lead. She also is 4 for 4 at Santa Anita.
C More than 1 year ago
David, (a) I happen to agree with Crist that synthetic surfaces are not necessarily here to stay. Therefore, it was indeed premature to hold championship races on a non-dirt surface 2 years in a row, imo. (b) What is so Earth-shattering about this year's Classic field? (c) "How many times has Rachel Alexander raced on the West Coast"... 1 less than Zenyatta has raced outside California. RA won in 7 different states though, so let's not pretend she needed to take her track with her, because that is clearly not true. How many tracks has Zenyatta run over in her career? RA ran over more within a few months, so I'm not sure where you're going with that. (d) Midnight Lute had a whopping 2 races last year, one of which was a 10th-place finish. Benny The Bull was a no-brainer, not an east-coast bias. (e) "her best race Beyerwise was against the colts in the Haskell on the speed favoring sloppy track"... Everyone downgrades her Haskell because of a speed-favoring track, but nobody wants to acknowledge the contribution of the synthetic courses to Zenyatta's unbeaten streak. (f) I never said anything about the asterisk stuff. You have me mixed up with someone else.
Kate H. More than 1 year ago
To grasslover -- To criticize Zenyatta's connections for not running at Churchill when the track was rated sloppy is unfair. There is no question her owners and trainers have rightfully put her safety and care above anything else. Or do you not think George Washinton's connections wish they had been as cautious in the quagmire at Monmouth when their wonderful horse lost his life?
jim More than 1 year ago
So Jay if you had your choice of a colt from Rachel or Zenyatta which one do you choose and why?
Bombsaway More than 1 year ago
I for one hope Z takes the lion share of the wagering on Saturday. That will create a nice payoff when she's up the track. Let's face it. She's just not fast enough to run against the boys. Times don't lie. I'll use a quote from Mr. Crist: "Students of time, however, will note that Zenyatta's winning time of 1:42.89 for 8.5f was sharply inferior to Gitano Hernando's 1:48.39 for 9f in the Goodwood 35 minutes earlier." We all want the feel good story, but she's up against way too much. The pace will not melt like it does against the over matched mares Z's been eating up all year. Pletcher's colt will see to that. The Moss's should have taken the 2 mill and called it a day.