08/18/2011 12:09PM

Del Mar: Zenyatta's breeder has two must-see fillies

Shigeki Kikkawa
Owner Eric Kronfeld, who bred Zenyatta, was in attendance when Nereid (4) won her stakes debut – in a dead heat with Cambina – in the American Oaks last month. He plans to be at Del Mar on Saturday, when Nereid runs in the Del Mar Oaks.

DEL MAR, Calif. − People called, they cajoled, and they begged Eric Kronfeld to get on a plane from New York and travel to California, Arkansas, or Kentucky.

He would have none of it. No matter where Zenyatta ran or in what kind of race, Kronfeld refused to watch a filly whom he bred run in person. He missed her entire historic career, from late 2007 until last fall, and settled for watching it all on television.

“I’m a superstitious son of a gun,” he said.

Kronfeld is not taking the same approach with Nereid, his improving 3-year-old filly, who starts in Saturday’s $250,000 Del Mar Oaks, nor is he taking the approach with Eblouissante, Zenyatta’s 2-year-old half-sister, who is expected to make her debut in Southern California this fall.

The 70-year-old owner of a New York-based investment company, Kronfeld was in attendance when Nereid won her stakes debut in the Grade 1 American Oaks at Hollywood Park last month, finishing in a dead heat with Cambina. He plans to be at Del Mar on Saturday for the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.

After all, he has been waiting for races such as the Del Mar Oaks since last fall, when trainer John Shirreffs first tipped Kronfeld that the filly he bought as a yearling at Keeneland had ample ability.

“He told me, ‘I think she’s a very good horse,’ ” Kronfeld said. “He said, ‘I think she has Group 1 ability.’ When a trainer tells you that, you gulp.”

After finishing second to subsequent Grade 1 winner Zazu in a maiden race last fall, Nereid had numerous setbacks last fall and winter – illness, an outbreak of hives, and concerns about her hind end – that kept her away from the races until early May.

“The timing on everything was a little off-kilter,” Shirreffs said.

Shirreffs’s enthusiasm stemmed from the way that Nereid galloped on routine training days.

“She showed that nice way of moving, and that’s a good indication when they have that nice stride,” he said. “And she didn’t get tired.”

Nereid, by Rock Hard Ten, made up for lost time over the winter by winning a maiden race in her second start on May 7 at Hollywood Park and an allowance race June 2, which led to the start in the American Oaks.

Kronfeld flew out for the race and then watched in a mixture of shock and amazement when Nereid took the early lead. In early stretch, she led by two lengths.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of easy,’ and then the cavalry charge came,” Kronfeld said.

Nereid’s lead diminished rapidly in the final sixteenth when Cambina rallied late to cause a lengthy photo review of the finish. In the stands, Kronfeld feared a loss.

“I said, ‘Damn, we got beat a nose,’ ” he said. “It’s the only time in my life I was happy with a dead heat.”

Cambina is part of the field for the Del Mar Oaks, which is an important test for Nereid. A trip to the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland in October is possible for Nereid. The Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs in November will not be discussed, Kronfeld said. Again, superstitions surface.

“I won’t even talk to John about anything beyond [the Del Mar Oaks],” Kronfeld said. “We haven’t discussed the Breeders’ Cup. Has he thought about it? Have I thought about it? That’s not for public comment. Let’s hope she does well in the Del Mar Oaks.”

Kronfeld’s absence from Zenyatta’s races allowed him to keep a low public profile during her 19-race winning streak and rise to popularity. During that time, he was often in contact with owner Jerry Moss, particularly with congratulatory emails. The two men go back to the 1970s, when Kronfeld was with Polygram Records and Moss with his A&M Records.

Moss invited Kronfeld to watch Zenyatta in early 2008, when she first began running in stakes. But after missing a few early races, Kronfeld consistently declined invitations, notably from Moss and even Breeders’ Cup officials.

Kronfeld recalled a conversation he had with Moss a few years ago.

“Jerry said to me, ‘Eric she’s a nice filly. You should come and watch her,’ ” Kronfeld said. “I said, ‘Jerry, I can’t. I am absurdly superstitious.’ Even though there is no way I can prove it and I sound like a fool, if she loses, I will blame it on myself.”

Kronfeld never made it, not for her win in the 2008 BC Ladies’ Classic nor her historic victory in the 2009 BC Classic, in which she became the first filly or mare to win that race.

“Now I’m convinced I’ll never see her,” Kronfeld remembers saying at the time. “I never saw Zenyatta run.”

Kronfeld raced Zenyatta’s dam, Vertigineux, and Vertigineux’s dam, For the Flag, who was foaled in 1978. At the time, Kronfeld was just getting involved in racing and owned Mrs. Penny, the champion 2-year-old filly of England in 1979. The following year, Mrs. Penny won the 3-year-old filly title after wins in the French Oaks and French 1000 Guineas.

For the Flag won once and produced three stakes winners, though Vertigineux was not one of them. Trained by Michael Dickinson, Vertigineux won twice at Belmont in the spring and summer of 1999. Zenyatta was her third foal, preceded by Oklahoma stakes winner Where’s Bailey and Balance, the winner of the five stakes and $1,048,491.

Eblouissante, by Bernardini, is Vertigineux’s sixth foal, and the last one that Kronfeld owns. He sold Vertigineux in the fall of 2008 in a private deal with John Magnier of Coolmore Stud. The deal was reached after Kronfeld consulted with Don Robinson of Winter Quarter Farms in Kentucky, where Kronfeld boards his horses.

“When I thought the world of finance was coming to the end, in 2008, I talked it over with Donnie Robinson,” Kronfeld said. “I said, ‘I think we have to sell her. There is never going to be the eight-digit prices for broodmares.’

“The odds on her throwing one more [Zenyatta] are astronomical,” he said. “I said I wanted to keep the in-utero foal. John Magnier allowed me to do that. I asked for a number, and there was no negotiation.”

After being bred to Henrythenavigator in 2009 and 2010, Vertigineneux was bred earlier this year to Street Cry, the sire of Zenyatta. The mating is notable since Street Cry is owned by Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Stud, which has had a frosty relationship with Coolmore in recent years, on the racecourses of Europe and in pursuit of leading bloodstock worldwide.

Fittingly, Eblouissante is trained by Shirreffs, having joined the stable in May. She had three workouts at Hollywood Park in June and July, including one with Zenyatta’s regular rider, Mike Smith. Eblouissante is at Del Mar, but only in light training.

A large filly, similar in appearance to Zenyatta, Eblouissante is not expected to make her debut until the fall. There is no rush to get her ready for a race, Shirreffs said. When asked last weekend if Eblouissante could start this fall, Shirreffs said, “One would hope.”

Unlike Zenyatta, who had a distinguishing blaze on her face, Eblouissante is largely void of markings, but still a striking filly.

“If you get to see Eblouissante, your breath will be taken away,” Kronfeld said. “Do I expect her to be anywhere close to Zenyatta? Absolutely not. If she were ever good enough to win a stakes, that’s all a breeder can hope for.”

Kronfeld is likely to make a trip to California for Eblouissante’s debut when that day comes, even though he said he has to remind himself to cool his expectations.

“I don’t want to get overexcited,” he said. “Too much can go wrong.”

But he allows, “Her first race will draw the most attention of any first-time maiden race in America.”