08/10/2009 6:35PM

Yatta-yatta-yatta

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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. 

TJ Wayne More than 1 year ago
I'm itching to see these two go head to head. The front runner vs the kicker. A classic match between any two champions but between these two, it would be a true event. RA made her statement against the boys and won. Zenyatta can catch any horse, running off the chart final splits..1/16 in 6 flat. Watch her stretch run in this one. The rest, and not a bad field, appeared to stand still and Zenyatta's long stride ate up that track. I like her more a distance a bit longer than a mile. For her a mile is a warm-up. For a kicker to go unbeaten is an accomplishment not to be over-looked. They often run out of position, run through traffic, and run a longer distance, yet she does not fail. In one early race she was in such bad position the announcer make this comment, "if she wins, she is half an hour the best.". Wow, that 30 minutes went by fast. Head to head I just think Zenyatta is to big, to strong, to fast coming home, and has to much heart to lose, ever. Sorry RA. RA is 3yr old of the year but Zenyatta is horse of year. I just hope it is decided on the track, not on message boards.
Jim More than 1 year ago
Paul, what is with your love affair with Quality Road? He didn't even win the Travers, the Travers was dominated by a horse that Rachel Alexandra dusted in the Haskell. And Rachel HAS beaten older horses! Doesn't the Woodward qualify as beating older horses? RA for Horse of the Year. Case closed.
Mike S More than 1 year ago
If you really want the proof of how well ZENYATTA ran just look at LIFE IS SWEET. ZENYATTA was two lengths behind LIFE IS SWEET even after they had gone 6 furlongs, and finished over 4 lengths ahead of her at the end. LIFE IS SWEET, a fantastic filly who looked like a world-beater earlier this year at Santa Anita, was not able to close into that slow pace, but ZENYATTA was able to do so. I think ZENYATTA deserves all the credit in the world for that fantastic show of brilliance and tenacity. As for RACHEL ALEXANDRA, she's certainly brilliant. RACHEL ALEXANDRA can race against ZENYATTA, if Jess Jackson wants that to happen. She can face ZENYATTA this autumn at Santa Anita during an event that we like to call "The Breeders Cup," which, by the way, is racing's championship day. Everyone with championship status or aspirations really needs to show up. I don't think there is any excuse for RACHEL ALEXANDRA to be absent from the day's festivities.
Bob Bright More than 1 year ago
In this day and age being a terrific horse like RA isn't enough to be HOY. We need to factor in that Jess Jackson fancies himself as some sort of slickster and Steve Asmussen wears suits that don't fit him. Maybe if they both started wearing black cowboy hats it would help.
Blaine More than 1 year ago
I want back Flores on Zenyatta. Enough with Smitty and the wide trips.
Groovy More than 1 year ago
There is also an additional take on the manner in which Mike Smith has been massaging the small victory margins of Zenyatta. If Zenyatta won by country miles, racing secretaries would have had no choice but to weigh her with over 130 pounds in handicap stakes races.
Mark More than 1 year ago
The performance at Del Mar was extrodinary. Zenyatta is a star and she knows it. From jaded two dollar bettors to seen it all trainers, nobody could take their eyes off of her. And Zenyatta did what she always does, win and put on a show.
Mickey More than 1 year ago
I totally agree with most on here about Zenyatta. I have mentioned a few times only two things will beat Zenyatta: 1. Weight 2. Mike Smith I live in NY and to one post above...easily think that if Zenyatta and RA met, Zenyatta would win (and not as close as you think)...the only reason it would ever be close is because of Smith. I think he WAS a great rider once and only over the last few years is still in the top because of the horses he rides.
paul More than 1 year ago
For everyone willing to hand horse of the year to RA, doesn't she have to eventually face older horses? If Jackson ducks the Travers to keep her away from Quality Road, horse of the year talk for her should end. I want her in the Travers because when she gets beat, Jackson will need to send her to the BC.
Jay H More than 1 year ago
Weatherbird -- John Shirreffs was pretty firm after the race ruling out the Pacific Classic for Zenyatta.