11/04/2009 1:00AM

Dealing with the Zenyatta question

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PHILADELPHIA - If I were just looking at Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup Classic participation in a vacuum, she would be a prime RIP (Reputation Induced Phenomenon) candidate. Her Beyers are not good enough to win. She has been beating small, weak fields all year. And she is very likely to be favored against the toughest field she has ever faced.

Here is the problem. The Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita makes it very difficult to say (a) she can't win and (b) determine who will win.

If this race were on dirt, I would not hesitate to pronounce Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird the winner. I wasn't all that impressed with his Belmont win. I thought he just sort of plodded home in a race where the others got exhausted in front of him.

Turns out I missed the point. This was a lightly raced horse about to get good, really good. As we found out, running second behind Rachel Alexandra is no disgrace, and that's what he did in the Haskell. Summer Bird surprised me in the Haskell because the colt adapted so well to the style of the race.

The Travers was a revelation, the Jockey Club Gold Cup a confirmation. Summer Bird was not only winning big races, he was compiling big Beyers (110, then 111).

Alas, this race is not on dirt so there is no way to be certain how Summer Bird will adapt.

Einstein is the one horse I feel confident will fire his best shot. The horse runs his race on dirt, synthetic, and grass. I am just not quite sure he is good enough to beat all of these horses. But I will be surprised if he is not in the top four. If you are looking for superfecta key in the Classic, look no farther.

Gio Ponti is America's best grass horse, but his two synthetic races do not inspire all that much confidence.

Quality Road is all quality, but there is the synthetic question again. And his close-to-the-pace style, so effective on dirt, is not always as effective on synthetic.

Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird did not look comfortable on the Pro-Ride in the Goodwood. Calvin Borel confirmed it after the race. Is the colt going to be any more comfortable this time?

Rip Van Winkle was very impressive visually in his most recent win. He made a move to get the lead and then another move when challenged in deep stretch. But . . .

Just because Euro grass horses ran one-two last year does not mean this particular horse will adapt to the synthetic. If he does adapt, he is the most likely winner. If not . . .

All of which brings us back to Zenyatta. Whenever I get into an RIP situation, I understand it has to be a two-part question. If there is potentially a horse to bet against, there has to be a horse or horses to bet on.

I just don't have a lot of confidence betting on any of the other obvious and not so obvious contenders. Therefore, I have to take a long, hard look at Zenyatta.

Her 2009 Beyers (103, 104, 99, 97) do not generate a lot of excitement, especially when compared with the consecutive 108 Beyers she got last summer and fall.

Her four 2009 fields total just 26. So she has not had to pass many horses and none of those horses has offered much resistance.

So the questions about Zenyatta are twofold: Can she run fast enough to win this race and will her rally be as eye-catching against better horses?

I do not know the answer to the first question, but I do have my doubts about her ability to run fast enough to win a typical Classic. I am just not sure this is going to be a typical Classic.

When a horse has raced 13 times, you sort of know how fast the horse can run. Still, because she has made that run behind slow, slower, and really slow paces in 2009, you do wonder if Zenyatta could be the exception to most rules and really just ran fast enough, long enough to win the race.

Horses simply can't run any faster than Zenyatta did in the final 100 yards of the Clement Hirsch, a race where she looked hopelessly beaten until she wasn't beaten at all. That has to count for something, but how much it counts is open to debate.

I am definitely using Einstein as my key horse. Rip Van Winkle should hit the ticket. After that, everything, including Zenyatta, is unclear.

My head tells me Zenyatta is a bet against in the Classic. My heart wants to see her make that run and see if it's good enough.