10/21/2009 2:09PM

Saturday's Child


I was shaken from my Angels vs. Dodgers World Series hallucination earlier this week by the published comments of two respected colleagues, Steven Crist and Paul Moran, who contend that Zenyatta has nothing to gain and everything to lose by running in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and should compete instead in the Ladies Classic the day before.

This is a baffling stance, especially coming from a part of the country where Zenyatta's name is usually summoned with such qualifications as "who's she ever beaten?" or "just wins the same old races" or "fake track freak." I'm not saying Steve and Paul have lobbed such hurtful grenades. But the chorus has been pretty steady.

Z1 On the one hand, they suggest that 14-0, capped by a Ladies Classic, would be an admirable record of historic note and should not be jeopardized in a losing cause. On the other hand, they warn that the Ladies Classic will be a searching examination of Zenyatta's abilities, while extolling the virtues of such suddenly formidable characters as Music Note--how about that Beldame?--and Careless Jewel, winner of both the Alabama AND the Cotillion. The Cotillion!

Literary license allows us blog-jockeys to have it both ways. But wait. A closing record of 14-0 would pass Personal Ensign, but it would not be a record, in the Guinness sense of the word, since Colin still hovers over the game at 15-0. And never mind Kinscem, at 54-0. (I will resist the use of the term "modern" record, although I have copped out before, and for that I am ashamed.) Zenyatta would cement her place further in the history of the game with a second Ladies/Distaff win. But, in the truest sense, she would not be making history (see Bayakoa, who is already there).

It is difficult to pinpoint just when the press and public became so actively concerned with the choices made by owners and trainers as to where their horses should run. Probably, because there was a time when the best horses ran quite often, it was never an issue. Buckpasser misssed the 1966 Triple Crown with foot trouble and still ran 14 times, won 13, and wrapped up the year winning the Malibu at Santa Anita on New Year's Eve. Typecast, a real mare's mare, ran 14 times in 1972, beginning with a victory at 7 furlongs in the Santa Monica at Santa Anita and ending the year winning the 12-furlong Man o' War at Belmont.

Certainly, there was great cry when Affirmed and then Spectacular Bid bypassed the Marlboro Cups of 1979 and 1980, respectively, because their trainers thought they were assigned too much weight in the handicap. To that point, however, both champions had produced full-blooded careers. It was not as if either colt had cheated their fans, or run from the competition.

The real clamor came in 1982, when Eddie Gregson stood on the winner's stand at Churchill Downs, after Gato del Sol had upset the Kentucky Derby, and made the ghastly error of giving ABC's Jim McKay a straight answer to the pro forma question, "See you at Pimlico?" Gregson said no, the Derby winner would not be competing in the Preakness.

Well, you would have thought Gregson had just eaten a baby. And asked for seconds. The furor was widespread and comprehensive. Syndicated columnist Jim Murray renamed the colt "Pollo del Sol." Pimlico general manager Chick Lang put a goat in the Derby winner's traditional stall. The establishment press lined up in defense of the traditions of the Triple Crown. Gregson got hate mail.

Imagine if that happened today. Gregson's Facebook page wouldn't have a moment's peace.

Those who still hold Zenyatta at arm's length do so because she has run all but one race on synthetic surfaces, because her Beyer figures are nothing extra-special, and because she supposedly beats the same tired old California bunch every time she runs. There is little arguing with the first two points, other than to wonder if her Beyers might reflect the fact that races on synthetics often unfold like grass races, and grass Beyers are as a rule lower across the board than dirt figures.

As for the lack of competition, besides Music Note, who took the Grade 1 Mother Goose last year in addition to this year's Ballerina and Beldame, Zenyatta has beaten the following, several of them more than once: Ginger Punch (a champion), Tough Tiz's Sis (Grade 1 Ruffian), Santa Teresita (Grade 1 Santa Maria), Hystericalady (Grade 2 Delaware Handicap and two Molly Pitchers), Life Is Sweet (Grade 1 Santa Margarita), Cocoa Beach (Grade 1 Beldame and Matriarch), Carriage Trail (Grade 1 Spinster) and Romance Is Diane (Grade 1 Starlet). Among the lesser known names, often cited as the bums Zenyatta smacks around with impunity, Allicansayis Wow and Lethal Heat finished 2-3 behind Ferneley in the Del Mar Mile. The people attached to some of the beaten have used synthetics as an excuse. The more honest among them have simply pointed to Zenyatta.

I have been disappointed that Zenyatta has not faced males this year, or competed outside of California. She is a treat that should have been shared with more fans. But now comes the final act, and Zenyatta must run in the Breeders' Cup Classic because there is absolutely no reason in the world she should not. Tiago, her stablemate, is out of the picture. The distance is not an issue, and there will be plenty of pace in the race. Sure, she'll need a decent trip in what figures to be a large field, but the good ones make their own luck. Mike Smith knows she can win. Jerry Moss dreams of it every night. And while John Shirreffs may appear to be the least enthusiastic of the three (he is, after all, a trainer), he has a deep and abiding respect for the kind of true history such a victory would represent--a feat that would rival the greatest ever recorded in this country by a female Thoroughbred.

As for the Ladies Classic, by winning it last year Zenyatta helped make for a memorable Friday afternoon. This time around, that's just not good enough. Zenyatta belongs on Wimbledon's Centre Court, where the best are asked for their best, and usually deliver. At one point during Cigar's grand reign of 1995-96, Bill Mott was asked if he would be running the big horse in the Meadowlands Cup, as a prep for a Breeders' Cup appearance. The Meadowlands race traditionally falls on a Friday evening, as it did last week. Mott telegraphed his reaction with one of his boyish grins, then wiped it away and soberly replied, "No, I don't think so. Cigar is a Saturday afternoon kind of horse."

So is Zenyatta.