08/10/2009 6:35PM



As night fell on Del Mar Sunday, there were more than a couple of ways to write the story of the day. It could have been:

Zenyatta, the reigning champion among older North American mares, won her 12th race without a defeat in a career that goes back to November of 2007. Or...

Anabaa's Creation, an unheralded but clearly talented Irish mare, came within a short head of handing Zenyatta the first defeat of her 12-race career. Or...

Mike Smith, who knows unbeaten Zenyatta like the back of his hand, blamed himself for giving her way too much to do in the final quarter mile of the Hirsch and won anyway.

There's even a fourth point of view, spun from slightly different thread, that would suggest Rachel Alexandra sewed up Horse of the Year on Sunday without ever leaving the warmth and security of her Saratoga stall. But that is more a function of publicity, not sport, and there is game yet to be played.

No matter which angle is taken, the headlines rightfully should read "Zenyatta Nearly Beaten, Still Perfect." The fact that it was her 12th of 12 is remarkable and has few precedents, but in the larger picture Sunday it was almost beside the point.

Every race is a test of Zenyatta's 24-carat consistency. As far as trainer John Shirreffs is concerned, it is her ability to reproduce the same quality of performance and result every single time that sets her apart, especially since Thoroughbreds are known more for their fragility of mind and body than for such machine-like precision. Zenyatta is, quite literally, one in a million.

But if Zenyatta is going to finally lose one someday, it had better be in a greater cause than the Hirsch. The race was a fat pitch--even with accomplished stablemate Life Is Sweet in the mix--and she should have taken it deep. Instead, giving away just four pounds and dropping six from her most recent appearance, Zenyatta was life and death, and required to finish the race with final quarter mile that shaded 23 seconds.

The fact that she galloped out with power and purpose was impressive. It was also a function of real estate. The stretch at Del Mar is about 30 yards shorter than at Hollywood Park, where Zenyatta has won six of her dozen. She also cooled out Sunday before she left the winner's circle. Later, back at the barn, Zenyatta made light of her bath and then grazed playfully on a patch of tight Bermuda sod and potted palms. Smith, watching her with admiration, could be proud of his stewardship in doing as little as needed to gain the desired result.

"If I'd have moved her sooner, she would have won by more," Smith said. Seasoned horsemen nodded, and applauded.

All that, however, is inside baseball--pitch counts, advancing the runner, hitting to the opposite field. Zenyatta is supposed to be Albert Pujols, not Ichiro Suzuki. The reaction would have been different if, before the race, Smith would have said something like, "This looks too easy. I think we'll spot them a slow first half and eight lengths on the final turn. I'll even pretend I'm fixing all my attention on Life Is Sweet and ignore the rest, then pull a rabbit out of my hat."

That he did, and when they hit the wire, Tyler Baze on Anabaa's Creation shouted over to Smith, "Did you beat me?" Smith sensed an element of disbelief in his younger colleague.

"I knew I had, but I hated to tell him, so I just went, 'Yeah, I think so,'" Smith said. "As I galloped on out, I could hear him behind me yelling, 'No! No! Nooo!'"

In a sport as deeply competitive as horse racing, the point of an unbeatable horse is to beat him, or her, whether the name on the hull reads Personal Ensign, Cigar, Hallowed Dreams, Peppers Pride or Zenyatta. Sentimentality is for those who can't do anything about it. With nothing left to the race but the finish, Baze thought he'd be that guy. When Bobby Ussery was asked if he would have felt badly had he spoiled the drama of Johnny Longden's last, victorious ride in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano, instead of losing to Longden by a nose, Ussery replied, "Hell no! I was trying to beat the sonofabitch."

So onward now, to Zenyatta's next chapter. By all rights, that should involve Rachel Alexandra, if the two sides can be brought to terms. If not, at least Smith knows how to make things interesting.