10/29/2010 4:25PM

Counting down to Zenyatta's run in the Classic


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This normally happens in the spring at Churchill Downs, not in the fall. A race meet opens to tremendous anticipation of what lies straight ahead, but it is usually the Kentucky Derby that awaits, not the Breeders’ Cup.

This year, however, there is an unmistakable electricity in the chilled Kentucky air, and it is mostly because of a mare named Zenyatta. With the 27th Breeders’ Cup to be run here next weekend, the 21-day fall meet will open Sunday with the looming spectacle of Zenyatta making her 20th and final career start in the BC Classic, an event of such magnitude that, for once, a Kentucky Derby six months down the road seems barely of consequence.

Indeed, the incredible drama sure to unfold next Friday and Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup is a matter of such exigence that the balance of the fall meet is being relegated deep into the backdrop, even with such traditional favorites as the Clark Handicap still to come. That’s what happens when you’re showcasing a veritable parade of superstars such as Zenyatta, Goldikova, Workforce and the many others who will be competing when Churchill hosts the Breeders’ Cup for the first time since 2006.

The meet kicks off Sunday with what has become a fan favorite: a “Stars of Tomorrow” card restricted exclusively to 2-year-olds. The co-features are the Grade 2, $150,000 Pocahontas and the Grade 3, $100,000 Iroquois, preludes to fixtures that will anchor a second “Stars” program Nov. 27, the Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club.

The Iroquois, the eighth of 11 Sunday races, drew a well-matched field of eight colts and geldings, with Maybesomaybenot being listed as the 5-2 favorite. After finishing eighth in his Polytrack debut in the Oct. 9 Breeders’ Futurity debut at Keeneland, trainer Mike Maker said he is hoping the addition of blinkers and a return to dirt will get Maybesomaybenot back on form. The gelding was good enough to capture the Grade 2 Sanford early in the Saratoga meet this summer.

“We think he’s a lot better than his Keeneland race suggests,” Maker said.

Other logical contenders in the one-mile Iroquois include Astrology, a two-back winner of a Saratoga maiden race; Ribo Babo, a 12-1 winner of a two-turn Calder stakes last out; and Ronin Dax, who ships in from California to make his first start over conventional dirt.

Maker, who set a fall-meet record here two years ago by winning 31 races, is among the handful of contenders for the training title, along with Steve Asmussen, Dale Romans, Ken McPeek, and Tom Amoss.

“We’ve got a lot of horses to run because we usually put our greatest emphasis on the Churchill meets, although I know we’re not alone,” Romans said.

The roster of jockeys who will compete here through the end of the meet, Nov. 28, is equally impressive, with Julien Leparoux and Calvin Borel likely to vie for leading rider in a jockeys’ room also housing Robby Albarado, Kent Desormeaux, Corey Lanerie, and others.

The Clark, as usual, will highlight a closing weekend that, in non-Breeders’ Cup years, has made the Churchill fall meet a back-loaded one. The Grade 1, $500,000 Clark was won last year by Blame, who has emerged as a leading handicap runner in 2010. The Clark will be run for the 136th time on Nov. 26.

Besides the Clark and the twin Grade 2 races for 2-year-olds, the Golden Rod and KJC, the final weekend also will include the Grade 2 Falls City on Nov. 25.

Churchill has extended its traditional meet by one day and will have racing Sunday, Nov. 28, which historically had been opening day at Turfway Park. There will be no stakes here closing day.

This will be the first Churchill fall meet with a permanent lights system. In trying to duplicate the terrific on-track response generated by four night cards at the spring meet, the track will offer an evening program Nov. 19, when first post will be 4:30 p.m. Eastern. Otherwise, first post will be 12:45 p.m., except for the Friday BC card (2 p.m.), the Saturday BC card (12:05 p.m.), and the Thanksgiving Day card, Nov. 25 (11:30 a.m.).