11/04/2010 11:42AM

In Classic, Zenyatta could do what other legends couldn't

Barbara D. Livingston
"I think she's sitting on a big race," said author William Nack. "I think she's going to run huge."

Perfection is elusive, even for the very best.

Affirmed never figured to have a perfect record, what with Alydar breathing down his neck every time he turned around. And even if Spectacular Bid had somehow sidestepped those two losses to inferior creatures at age 2 and then found a way to overcome the human errors weighing him down the day he failed in the Belmont Stakes, he could have tried the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup a thousand times, and still he would have lost to Affirmed.

Perfection is defining, especially at the top of the game, where horses are honored every bit as much for the aplomb with which they handle inevitable defeat.

Cigar responded to losing for the first time in 17 starts by winning his very next race, in the 1996 Woodward Stakes. The younger version of Housebuster won eight in a row after losing his first start, lost narrowly to the older Criminal Type in the 1990 Met Mile, then won his next three under a pull. Manila won nine straight over two seasons before just losing the 1986 Bernard Baruch, giving 12 pounds to the winner. His response? He crushed the Arlington Million in his next start.

Perfection is also intoxicating. It can blur the vision and cloud the judgment.

It happened in 2004, when Smarty Jones raced undaunted through the first eight starts of his career and arrived at the Belmont Stakes poised to win the Triple Crown. There was every reason to believe he would do to his Belmont opposition what he had done to them in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and this reporter was among the many guilty of wanting desperately to believe it would happen, in spite of history’s bitter lessons. Then he lost, by a length, and that was that.

“Things are going to happen that you’re not going to see in any Racing Form or any crystal ball,” said John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, almost to perfection. “I wouldn’t do anything different. But he was starting to show some signs of wear and tear. And you could always have it in the back of your mind that Smarty had never been the mile and a half.”

Yeah, yeah, we kind of knew all that. And maybe it was too soon to invest too much in a colt like Smarty Jones. After all, the point was not to maintain a perfect record, but to win the Triple Crown. As Servis noted, “The Belmont, the Triple Crown − you’ve only got one shot at that. And you’re also talking about a young horse learning to race as he does it, stretching out to a new distance just about every time he ran.”

Voltaire, that cagey Frenchman, was right. True perfection “is attained by slow degrees; it requires the hand of time.” This is why the perfection of Zenyatta, with 19 wins from 19 starts over parts of four seasons, is so deeply satisfying, and why horsemen like Servis see beyond the company lines and the speed figures to believe that nothing short of the unthinkable could stand in her way of winning number 20 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

“Zenyatta’s been there and done it already,” Servis said. “It’s hard to look past her. They could point for this race from a long way out and do what it took to get her there in the best possible shape.”

Servis, like many of his East Coast colleagues, has had to appreciate the California-centric Zenyatta from afar. Because of that, last weekend’s “60 Minutes” feature on the mare was a treat.

“I was shocked to see how big she is. She’s huge!” Servis said. “As big as she is, I’m sure trying to put too much speed into her early on would have been her downfall. She’d had legs going every which way. But once she’s in the race, the way she levels off, it’s like a fighter jet.

“My all-time favorite filly was Ruffian,” Servis said. “She was more of a high-strung filly, strictly speed, and she would run those horses into the ground. When she turned for home the rest of them were done, where Zenyatta is the complete opposite. Horses aren’t done when she gets to them.”

Perfection eluded even Secretariat, whose name has made it to the silver screen, courtesy in large part to the biography written by William Nack. How, Nack was asked, did Big Red ever lose?

“The only time I thought he just did get beat was the first time he ran,” Nack said. “Another horse knocked him off his feet, and that’s just racing luck. After that it was people who got him beat.

“His DQ in the Champagne was ridiculous,” Nack went on. “They’d never DQ him today. He had the abscess in the Wood. He was sick for the Whitney, and he was under-trained for the Woodward, when he came back blowing like a steam engine. I was furious. But when it rained they pulled Riva Ridge out and dropped him in, and he was only 85 percent fit.”

Having brushed so close to the imperfection of an almost perfect horse, Nack was ready to make the leap for Zenyatta’s chances to attain the unattainable.

“I think she’s sitting on a big race,” Nack said. “I’ve got a sixth sense about it. I think she’s going to run huge, and if the track is real hard and fast, I think the track record might even be in danger.”

And who holds that record, set in ’73? Nack pretended for a second he’d forgotten, then he laughed.

In the end, it sounds mundane, but perfection is also repetition, or as Henry David Thoreau put it, “What is once well done is done forever.” But if, for some reason, Zenyatta’s perfection should come to an end Saturday, under the lights of Churchill Downs, there will always be William Faulkner to assure us:

“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”

Just in case, though, get ready to witness the impossible.