11/04/2010 1:43PM

All eyes riveted on Zenyatta at Breeders' Cup

Tom Keyser
Zenyatta tunes up Thursday at Churchill Downs for her Breeders' Cup Classic defense.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There were 172 horses entered in the 14 races in this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, 94 of them in the eight BC races on Saturday. There are champions competing from the United States, Europe, and Asia. As good as they all are, though, everyone has a back seat to the magnificent mare Zenyatta. She is the one driving this bus.

Zenyatta’s legend grew when she won last year’s Classic at Santa Anita, and only has increased this year, as she has run her perfect record to 19-0, with 13 of those wins in Grade 1 races. No horse has ever accomplished those feats in concert, and the possibility of keeping a horse in training, without a loss, for three straight years, against top company, is stunning. Personal Ensign, her modern-day equivalent, won 13 times in an unbeaten career that ended in 1988.

But the risk-reward ratio on Saturday, when Zenyatta seeks a repeat victory in the $5 million Classic, is pronounced.

A victory would make Zenyatta a three-time winner in the Breeders’ Cup, a feat Goldikova could equal earlier in the card in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. But Zenyatta would be winning the Classic for the second straight year. She is the only female to have done it in the previous 26 years. It would take her already lofty reputation to new heights, unquestionably ranking her among the all-time greats.

“Being undefeated at this level is almost unheard of,” Allan Carter, the historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said in a telephone interview. “The closest you could come is Personal Ensign.”

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Off the top of his head, Carter named Ruffian, Regret, Ruthless, Gallorette, and Miss Woodford as other all-time greats. “How could I leave off Go for Wand?” he said. “And Shuvee was one of my all-time favorites. To me, when ranking fillies, you’ve already got to put Zenyatta in the top 10. But if she wins the Classic, it would be hard not to put her number one.”

A loss would put a blemish on that heretofore perfect record. As great as 19-1 is, it’s not 20-0. That’s the chance owners Jerry and Ann Moss took when they brought Zenyatta back for a 2010 campaign.

“We think she’s up to the task, or we wouldn’t be here,” Jerry Moss said this week.

A loss also could cost Zenyatta the Horse of the Year title. She finished second last year to Rachel Alexandra, a result that Zenyatta supporters took hard. But should any of the accomplished older horses of this year – like Blame, Haynesfield or Quality Road – or the top 3-year-old Lookin At Lucky, beat Zenyatta in the Classic, his 2010 resume would make him a worthy choice as the best horse of this calendar year.

“I don’t know if a filly has ever run against male competition that good. Maybe Gallorette,” Carter opined. “Obviously it’s the greatest field she’s ever run against.”

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Zenyatta has made 17 of her 19 starts on synthetic surfaces. Carter said it is hard at this point for a historian to quantify what that will mean years from now. He said her dirt performances, two victories in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, showed Zenyatta is not a synthetic phenomenon.

“She put some good horses away in the Apple Blossom,” Carter said, referring to the 2008 edition, when Zenyatta, in only her fourth start, crushed the 2007 Eclipse Award winner, Ginger Punch. “If she’d have spent her entire career on synthetic, you’d say, ‘What’s going on? How do you figure her?’ I don’t know how those races will be looked at historically. I do wish she had come East for a couple of races. She didn’t really travel that much.”

Churchill Downs is as far east as Zenyatta has ventured from her base at Hollywood Park in California. She was here in the spring of 2009 for an intended start on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, but was scratched when the track came up muddy, as trainer John Shirreffs believed it was detrimental to have her make her first start in six months under those conditions.

At that point, though, Zenyatta had won just nine times. Her legend has grown exponentially since then. She was the subject of a feature on “60 Minutes.” She was profiled in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, “O.” Terrell Owens of the Cincinnati Bengals visited her during a bye week this season. She was followed to the track both Wednesday and Thursday by hundreds of adoring fans and horsemen.

On race day, she puts on a show, strutting in the paddock before her races, seemingly playing to the crowd.

“The great thing about Zenyatta is that she has a personality you can share with other people,” Shirreffs said. “You need to see her, need to visit her. She has this aura about her.”

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It’s an allure that will bring tens of thousands of fans to Churchill Downs on Saturday, and millions will watch on television. First post time is 12:05 p.m. Eastern time. The Classic, the last of 11 races, is scheduled for 6:45 p.m.

All eight Breeders’ Cup races will be televised live, beginning on ABC at 1:30, then switching to ESPN at 3:30. Those at the track better bundle up. According to Weather.com, the high temperature will be 52 degrees, following a morning low of 31.

This is the seventh time that Churchill Downs will play host to the Breeders’ Cup. Churchill Downs also will be the host in 2011, mirroring the schedule at Santa Anita, which had a synthetic surface, in 2008-2009.

Plenty of great horses have raced between the Twin Spires here. There have been 136 Kentucky Derbies, featuring the likes of Secretariat and Seattle Slew, Citation, and Affirmed. Personal Ensign ended her career here, winning the 1988 BC Distaff in a dramatic performance that, until last year’s Classic, was considered the best Breeders’ Cup race in history.

The 1989 Classic at Gulfstream, in which Sunday Silence and Easy Goer faced off for Horse of the Year, was equally dramatic.

But it would be hard to argue that any Breeders’ Cup race, or any race ever run at Churchill Downs, has had potentially more historical importance than this year’s Classic.

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