10/21/2009 3:09PM

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.

Gary Lynn More than 1 year ago
You're right methinks about Mr. 'Black Type'...now take a look in the mirror...you two were in sync on the soon to be Horse Of The Year as I recall, AND NO ONE COULD RUN BYHER...TRUST YOUR EYES!!!
Leon More than 1 year ago
Gene: No owner has to prove anything to anybody. If an owner is content to win 18 races in a row in New Mexico, that is his/her prerrogative, but the only way you can get respect and achieve legendary status, is to increase the difficulty of the challenge, and in the case of fillies & mares, they do run against males to prove greatness. That's the nature of the game. It is a natural progression; two-year olds have to prove they are just as good when they turn 3, and three-year olds have to prove they can beat older horses. I respect the level of accomplishment achieved by Zenyatta so far; but just like Bill Mott says so eloquently, Zenyatta is a saturday afternoon kind of horse, and she should not settle for playing second fiddle on friday afternoon another year. Been there...done that...
gene hartis More than 1 year ago
Z should not have to run against the boys to prove she is the best filly in the game. It is possible to be the best at what you do, and not try to prove you can do things that have nothing to do with being the best filly running. If she does run in the Classic someone needs to tell Smith that she CANNOT come from twelve back, and needs to at least maintain contact with the field. Five or six off of the pace will allow her to catch the leaders. Any more and everyone will just say how she could not beat the boys. Beating the boys is not the end all of racing for a filly.
Leon More than 1 year ago
To Ann: Your whole argument is based on whether Zenyatta beats the boys and wins the Classic. There's a tiny detail you forget: While Zenyatta still has to prove she can beat the boys....Rachel HAS already been there and done THAT...not once, not twice...but THREE times...and not in G2 or G3 races...the Preakness....the Woodward, the Haskell are all G1's...No 3-year old filly had ever done that in the US, it is unprecedented...and she ran and won almost twice as many races as Zenyatta...and when she ran against fillies, she won by daylight...and she won in Kentucky, Maryland, New York (two different tracks), New Jersey, Louisiana & Arkansas (twice)... Zenyatta's connections waited until she was 5 to run her against them for the first time; but wait....that's not even certain yet...for God's sake...we are one week away from the Cup, and we can't get a straight answer from them YET!!!!!! the last we heard was "we are definitely LEANING towards the classic"...she has left the comfort of her home state ONCE in her career...her resume reads CALIFORNIA twelve times...Where's the challenge on that? You bash Rachel Alexandra for beating Macho Again (a multiple graded stakes winner older male) by a head, after a frenetic pace, in which she was involved from the gitgo; didn't Zenyatta barely beat Anaaba's Creation by a desperate neck two races ago? Who the $%$#$ is Anaaba's Creation????????? Once again, this has nothing to do with being from the east or west. I'm from Venezuela and reside in the Caribbean. If RA' resume read "undefeated NY filly in 13 races - never beaten the boys", and Zenyatta had travelled to 8 different tracks, and had beaten the boys 3 times in G1 races, my vote would be for Zenyatta, regardless of where she was stabled. Anyway, I doubt Zenyatta will run after either the Classic or the Ladies Classic, win or lose. This is her final race.
David More than 1 year ago
At the current level of discourse about horse of the year, should Zenyatta run in and win the Classic, no doubt many Rachel Alexander fans will qualify it because it was on the synthetic. Apparently you need to run on the dirt, particularly on the East Coast dirt/frequently sloppy, tracks. No one doubts that Alexander is the best of arguably a mediocre three-year old lot this year and should win the Eclipse for the best filly. Nor is anybody questioning Zenyatta’s dominance over the mares. What fillies did Alexander beat? Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby and may rebound, but appears to have been aided by the Churchill Down wet surface. Summer Bird has improved with every race and is the most consistent three-year old colt. He was beaten in the Haskell at Monmouth by Alexander on a sloppy, speed-favoring track surface that she clearly relishes. On the other hand, on a dry surface, Alexander was desperate to beat Macho Again in the Woodward. Macho Again later lost by several lengths to Summer Bird in the Jockey Gold Cup. If Summer Bird wins the Classic, he should win the Horse of the Year. He will have won major races on the dirt, in the mud, and on the synthetic, showing versatility and consistency against the highest level of competition. Even though he has raced primarily on the dirt, he is not ducking running on a synthetic track in what looks like the most competitive race of the year, the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Championships should be determined on the field, not by the influential horse racing pundits (especially those from the East Coast) who have outlets to regularly talk about their highly biased preferences, presumably impacting the year-end selections. While Alexander may be praised for running a so-called ambitious (and compressed) schedule -- 8 races -- it will be interesting to see how she comes back. For her handlers, apparently the current trend is to pick and choose your favorite tracks, avoiding the championship races due to a dislike of a particular surface. Zenyatta has shown consistency at the highest levels at least the past two years and remains unbeaten. Her handlers seem to have raced her with caution, spacing out her races, as if to not squeeze the lemon dry. If Zenyatta runs in the Classic, she will face a daunting task, not just winning the most competitive race this year, but she will do it at the mile and a quarter distance. Thus far she has unleashed a devastating kick, usually at 1 1/16, or the 1 1/8 distances. Her last race was at 1 1/16. With respect to training horses up to a major race, Charles Wittingham did it with Sunday Silence for the Breeder’s Cup Classic, but Sunday Silence already had raced at the 1 ¼ and 1 ½ distances). She will be racing against runners proven at these distances. Should Zenyatta win the Classic, she should win the horse of the year. Even if she does not win, she will have been one of a few female thoroughbreds to have challenged the colts in the Classic. Whatever the outcomes of the Breeder’s Cup, the year end selection process needs to be revisited. Right now the voting appears to favor those horses that have won races on the dirt-- i.e. East Coast. If the fans on each respective coast had a vote, no doubt Zenyatta would win horse of the year on the West Coast (she should have won it last year) and Alexander would win on the East Coast, apparently irrespective of what happens in the Classic. Right now, no matter who wins the horse of the year, there will not be a national consensus.
Mike L More than 1 year ago
Was hoping to see her face Rachal because no matter how much anyone says that the Classic is where she needs to go the question of who's the best remains unanswered. You can make all the arguments for her running in the Classic, even if by some chance and luck she wins it does not answer the ultimate question, Can she beat RA, is she truly the best? She has been my favorite over the last two years and I thought she deserved HOY last year however I do not like her in this spot, it will be extremely difficult for her to win and I don't expect it. M
Ann More than 1 year ago
Ditto on the Bravo to Easy Goer! To Leon-sorry --forgot a couple points--so if that scenario happens it also means she is still perfect and sorry but how many writers admitted they gave Jess extra credit JUST for bringing Curlin back to race as a 4 yr old when voting so they should do the same for Zenyatta/Moss's AND how many also referred to his winningest money earner title figuring into their voting and THAT encompassed two campaigns not one so they need to think about two campaigns again if done once--and a perfect record is pretty well perfect..if they don't figure that into it but did both things for Jess/Curlin that smells a bit and change votes to suit themselves only or to get another bottle of rare wine. And don't forget too that would mean she is the only female to have ever won the Classic at a Classic distance--and if you owned a horse which would you rather she won-the Woodward or the BC Classic?
Ann More than 1 year ago
To Leon--the year is not over yet(not it really isn't) and IF she wins the Classic and say another one before the end of the year where would that put her $? Her connections didn't think small-what 3 yr old only race would you have put her in? I don't blame them for not going to NY when Jess playing coy about which race was next or for giving her a 7mth rest. And if she wins the Classic how many grade 1 winners are there in it and it will have the best 3yr old males including a few RA did not face, it will have the best turf horse in Gio Ponti and next to Sea the Stars one of the best Euros and better older boys than the Woodward had. All in one fell swoop. It is a world championship no matter what you think of the surface or the location or anything. Fact is she will have caught or surpassed earnings, beaten more grade 1 winners of all ages and some euros and the top turf star who has what 4 or 5 grade 1's all by himself. IF that happens of course. Sorry but a year is a year not a few months. And I like her connections--they do more for horse rescues and older race horses in one month than Jackson has still yet to do--they aren't all about press conferences and stroking their own ego. Nothing is a guarantee except East Coast writers and fans think racing only happens there and is as important as they say. Some of us disagree is all. Some of us don't care for the stupid award when she is the award to us but are tired of the bashing.
Gary Lynn More than 1 year ago
Bravo, Ez Goer! Classic!!
Ez Goer More than 1 year ago
Don't you have to run a classic distance to be horse of the year? Neither one deserves that honor till they do. Anybody who subscribes to Andy's Beyers in my opinion is a follower. A failed gambler gets "his" speed figures in bold type in the form to distract us. By the way what do you consider "dirt"? If you tink that Belmont and CD are "dirt" your a little naive