11/03/2010 6:56PM

History in the making in Breeders' Cup Classic

Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta is the center of attention at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Hail, hail, the gang’s all here. The best mare, and most popular horse, in the country in Zenyatta. The top three older dirt horses: Blame, Haynesfield, and Quality Road. The best 3-year-old male, Lookin At Lucky. They are the leading candidates for 2010 Horse of the Year, and they will all meet for the first time in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

“I would imagine that when this race was designed, when they came up with the concept in 1982, this is what they had in mind,” Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Quality Road, said earlier this week at his Churchill Downs barn. “It brings the best horses in the world together, on a neutral playing field, on a traditional dirt surface. We’ll see what happens.”

Indeed, the whole world will be watching, first and foremost to see if Zenyatta can run her perfect record to 20-0.

“Perhaps there’s more historical significance to this race than any so far,” Pletcher said.

Indeed, the depth of this Classic ranks with the celebrated fields of 1998, when Awesome Again beat Silver Charm, Swain, Victory Gallop, Coronado’s Quest, Skip Away, and Touch Gold, and 2004, when Ghostzapper sped to victory over Roses in May, Pleasantly Perfect, Perfect Drift, Azeri, Birdstone, and Funny Cide.

BREEDERS' CUP ENTRIES: Full fields with odds, charts, and video replays

In addition to Zenyatta, Blame, Haynesfield, Quality Road, and Lookin At Lucky, this year’s Classic includes the accomplished Japanese horse Espoir City, turf standout Paddy O’Prado, the tenacious older horse Musket Man, Preakness runner-up First Dude, and Fly Down, second in both the Belmont Stakes and Travers. Toss in Etched, a winner of 7 of 9 starts, and the longshot Pleasant Prince, who lost a heartbreaker in the Florida Derby earlier this year, and this Classic field looks worthy of a showdown for Horse of the Year.

The only missing ingredient is European runners, so well represented the past two years when the Classic was run on a synthetic surface at Santa Anita. The Europeans are less inclined to try their grass runners on dirt.

“It has impacted the numbers by racing on dirt, not synthetic,” said Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau.

The Classic should be a truly run race. The field for the 1 1/4-mile race is a manageable dozen, and there is good combination of horses with speed, stalking, and closing styles to ensure some separation between runners as the field races into the first turn.

Zenyatta will be favored in the mutuel pools. Only she and Haynesfield have won races at 1 1/4 miles. Though she has won 17 times on synthetic surfaces, she has two victories on dirt. Zenyatta has been campaigned judiciously this year by John Shirreffs, a trainer who rivals the late Charlie Whittingham as among the best all-time at pointing a horse for a major race. And make no mistake, the Classic, like last year, has been the focal point.

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“The Breeders’ Cup every year has always been our goal,” said Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta with his wife, Ann.

Zenyatta is also a sentimental favorite. She has a large, passionate fan base, built up by three years of perfection. She has never needed an excuse, not for pace, trip, surface, or competition.

“We all want to win, but we don’t mind losing to her,” said Bob Baffert, the trainer of Lookin At Lucky. “She’s become such a popular horse. She puts on a show with her antics. It’s almost like a game to her. She’s like a killer whale with seals. I get goosebumps just watching her replays.”

Make no mistake, though, Baffert is in it to win it. Lookin At Lucky has won his last three starts, since Martin Garcia took over as his rider following a horrible trip in the Kentucky Derby. Lookin At Lucky is a far more mature colt now than in the spring. He did not celebrate his actual third birthday until after his victory in the Preakness.

“He’s starting to grow, fill out,” Baffert said. “He’s not at capacity yet. His energy level is fantastic. He’s really turned the corner. He’s taking a big step up in class against older horses.”

Those older horses include Blame, who won the Clark Handicap here last fall and the Stephen Foster in the summer, giving him the home-field advantage.

Blame emerged as the nation’s top-ranked older horse in August, when he ran down Quality Road in the Whitney at Saratoga. Since then, Blame has been second to Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, while Quality Road took the Woodward, his fourth win in five starts this year.

“I would certainly think that if he wins the Breeders’ Cup on a neutral playing field that he would be a deserving Horse of the Year,” Pletcher said of Quality Road.

Haynesfield should take up the running. He led from start to finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, his fifth win in his last six starts. The only blemish came in the Whitney, when he broke through the gate before the start.

Fly Down, like Blame, was compromised by the lack of pace in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he finished third. He, Blame, and Pleasant Prince are the only Classic runners with a previous victory at Churchill Downs.

“He’s the real thing. He’ll make his presence known,” said Nick Zito, who trains Fly Down.

But Zito knows who, rightly so, will attract most of the attention.

“I’m sure all of racing wants Zenyatta to do the impossible,” he said.

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