11/08/2010 1:13PM

My 20 Minutes with Zenyatta

Email

Standing on a balcony overlooking historic Churchill Downs, binoculars in hand, I spent 20 minutes with Zenyatta. 

I usually keep the same visual routine for every race.   I watch the horses in the paddock, and keep my eyes on them as they warm up and approach the starting gate.  When the bell sounds, I train my binoculars on the runner that I've backed and keep them focused on that horse, no matter where he is, or how badly beaten, all the way to the finish. 

It is afterwards that I’ll watch the replay, and take my trip notes on the rest of the runners in the race. 

My routine changed for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic.  No matter what happened, or where she finished, I was going to stay frozen on Zenyatta. 

The atmosphere was electric at Churchill Downs as dusk set onto Louisville.  As Zenyatta began her walk to the paddock, the multitude began to buzz.  Each time she did her patented "strut," the crowd - her crowd - laughed, clapped, and was thoroughly entertained.  Clearly, Zenyatta understood that this was a show as much as a racing event. 

As Zenyatta walked through the tunnel onto the racetrack, perhaps for the last time, she had one last trick up her sleeve.  The big mare did a little two-step for her admirers, tripping the light fantastic until she set hoof on the main oval.  The crowd's response was deafening.  The star had arrived.

Zenyatta wasn't warmed up very vigorously by her jockey, Mike Smith.  While most of the horses in the Classic galloped or jogged to the midway point on the backstretch, Zenyatta calmly walked to the five-sixteenths pole.  There she remained, going in circles, for the final eight minutes before the curtain dropped. 

Once the starting gate opened, it was apparent that this was to be Zenyatta's biggest challenge.  As usual, she broke a half-length slowly, but then was checked from in between rivals.  Soon she was at the rear of the field, far off the leaders, a dark bay or brown island unto herself.  In fact, she had never been this far behind at any stage of her previous 19 races. 

As the field straightened down the backstretch, I felt the familiar dread that most Zenyatta supporters experience during her races.  My God, she's not going to fire.  She's going to run last.  A man standing behind me stated that she was finished.  True Zenyatta fans are also blessed with fervent faith.  It's not over, yet.  Still far behind at the half-mile pole, Smith was committed to the rail.  If he swung wide entering the far turn, he would have been fanned impossibly wide.  That wouldn't have been the recipe for victory this evening. 

So, Smith stayed in.  And Zenyatta was stopped every so slightly as the field bunched up at the five-sixteenths pole.  Then, the seam opened, Smith angled the Cadillac to the outside, and all of a sudden, we had a horse race. 

The crowd exploded as Zenyatta was set down for the drive, still a few lengths in arrears of Blame.  She kept giving her all under those Twin Spires.  For the first time in her life, it was not enough.  Zenyatta arrived on the scene too late.  She was second best. 

I've been to Belmont many times when there's been a Triple Crown on the line.  All throughout the day, the excitement is palpable.  When the claimant has been denied, the air goes out of the balloon, the people silently go home, and the disappointment soon fades. 

That wasn't the case at Churchill Downs on Saturday.  Some fans wept.  Some felt angry.  Some wanted to blame the jockey, the trip, the track, and the pace. 

I couldn't understand their negativity.  One racing fan asked me, "Doesn't it hurt you that she got beat?  Aren't you upset?" 

"Quite the contrary," I replied.  "We just saw one of the greatest races, one of the greatest spectacles, in all of sport.  Plus, Zenyatta gained more in this one race than she did in her previous nineteen.  To all of her doubters, she proved what her fans knew her to be.  A top, top horse.  A champion."

I don't think the Zenyatta fan understood.  Most folks are result players.  They see the Wins or Losses.  Very, very rarely, do moral victories stand in racing.  This was one of those occasions.  After nineteen wins in a row, there was still doubt about Zenyatta's true ability.  After one loss, the doubt was erased. 

Let's not forget Blame in all of this.  The Arch colt, now retired to Claiborne Farm, was one of the gamest runners in recent memory.  Professional, hard-hitting, and gutsy, Blame likes a good fight.  It could be argued that any other runner would have faltered when Zenyatta charged at them.  Blame was emboldened.  Not even during the gallop-out did Blame allow Zenyatta to pass. 

DRF. com Handicapper Mike Beer and I were at Belmont for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.  Two things stuck with us after the race.

1.  Haynesfield was very good.

2.  Blame never gave up.

Despite hooking a field with no pace and a sharp front-runner, Blame kept chugging in the stretch.  His "try" couldn't be measured in figures or numbers, but it made an impression. 
Blame doesn't quit.

***

A cloudy Friday began with controversy as Javier Castellano, aboard Prince Will I Am, dangerously impeded Martin Garcia and Romp on the far turn of the Marathon.  The resulting chain reaction caused Calvin Borel, on A. U. Miner, to check and lose all momentum.  Borel went after Castellano after the race.  "I had so much horse," said Castellano.  "I had pressure outside me.  I went for a hole and they said I took his lane." 

As one that supported A.U. Miner at the windows, watched him check, and then saw him come with a good run on the far outside to finish fourth (placed third via disqualification), I could only wonder "what if" he hadn't been stopped cold.  It's possible A.U. Miner would have won the whole thing.  As it was, Eldaafer completed a solid season for trainer Diane Alvarado by finishing first at 10-1 odds. 

To the blogger that insisted he would wear the "Dunce Cap," if my top selection in the Juvenile Fillies, Awesome Feather, emerged with her unbeaten streak intact, you may send that picture to Dan Illman C/O FormBlog..."

Over the weekend, one of our bloggers asked me why I didn't select Winter Memories in the top four for the Juvenile Fillies Turf.  Not to be rude, but I'm still trying to find out what the big deal is with the well-bred baby.  She was very good in her first two starts and projects to have a nice season next year, but did she deserve to go off at 11-10 based on the cold dope?  Todd Pletcher and Garrett Gomez began their sweep of the juvenile races on turf with More Than Real, a filly that finished second in a fast running of the Grade 3 Natalma in her final prep.  The Europeans disappointed.  My selections even more so.

One of the big angles on the two-day Breeders' Cup card was the "Horse For Course."  Besides Blame (now 5-4-0-1 at Churchill Downs), other winners with previous good form at Churchill included Dubai Majesty (Filly and Mare Sprint, now 7-4-0-1 over the track), Unrivaled Belle (Ladies Classic, 2-2-0-0), and Chamberlain Bridge (Turf Sprint, 5-4-1-0). 
The babies were pretty impressive this year.  Pluck ran his final quarter-mile in 22.54 (according to Formulator Web) to win the Juvenile Turf.  Uncle Mo was simply tremendous in living up to the hype in the Juvenile.  He blasted away from a game Boys At Tosconova to win by 4 1/4 lengths. 
And then there was Goldikova.  Somewhat lost in the Zenyatta hype, the European wonder mare made it three straight Breeders' Cup Miles with her usual late burst.  Paco Boy was conservatively handled by Ryan Moore, wasn't asked for his best until upper stretch, and rallied stoutly for fourth.  Gio Ponti ran very well to be second.

I couldn't believe that Big Drama was allowed such an easy lead in the Sprint.  But, he's a good horse capable of doing very good things.  When Big Drama faced no early pressure, he became extremely tough to run down.  I cashed on him, but not on Morning Line, who ran an absolute corker in the Dirt Mile only to fall shy to longshot Dakota Phone. 

Even with Workforce scratched, our American turf runners failed to put up much of a fight in the Turf.  Dangerous Midge, first-time blinkers, Lasix, and Dettori, made his Grade 1 debut a winning one.  Champ Pegasus tried to steal it through tepid fractions, but simply wasn't good enough. 
Shared Account was aided by a perfect trip and ride to upset defending champion Midday in the Filly and Mare Turf. 

***

Back next time with the HandiGambling results.
Hope you enjoyed the BC.
Dan