11/09/2009 12:00AM

A humbling Breeders' Cup


The 2009 Breeders' Cup will be remembered by most as the event where the great racemare Zenyatta completed an unblemished 14-race career. It was without a doubt the best performance of her life and it came on racing's richest stage. She was aided by Mike Smith, who gave her one of the best rides of his Hall of Fame career.

I was among those who readily participated in the standing ovation as Zenyatta came back to be honored in the Santa Anta Park winner's circle. After all, she had just rallied from last to first to defeat an accomplished group of male horses who had won important stakes on dirt, turf, and synthetic tracks from California to Great Britain

As a horseplayer, I will remember the 2009 Breeders' Cup as one of the worst handicapping experiences of my 47 years of playing this great, sometimes diabolical game, which can produce lessons for the future when you would rather get the money.

My scorecard? Zero returns for all seven bets I made over the two-day event on behalf of several world-class poker players who sent me on a mission from Las Vegas to win a princely sum - in my game.

On Friday, the closest I came to filling the bill was in a modest pick six play. I went 4 for 4 on a backup ticket with good-priced horses before I lost the last two legs with heavily favored Ventura and a trio of contenders who could not cope with Zenyatta's stablemate Life Is Sweet in the $2 million Ladies' Classic. Having a ticket with 4 out of 6 is close to the worst of pick six outcomes. Yet, the way this played out was the exact reverse of what happened to a more substantial investment in Saturday's pick six.

That wager busted out a shade faster than 1:08 when my three preferred horses in the $2 million Sprint were beaten. Gayego finished fourth, Zensational a troubled fifth, and Capt. Candyman Can eighth.

My four horses in the second leg, the $2 million BC Juvenile, did somewhat better, but not good enough, as 30-1 shot Vale of York, a Godolphin-owned Euro carrying no hype at all, angled off the rail behind tiring leaders to narrowly outfinish the unlucky Lookin at Lucky to kill any chance of cashing a consolation payoff.

While a backup ticket included the next three winners - 7-5 favorite Goldikova in the Mile, 21-1 shot Furthest Land as my first alternative to Mastercraftsman in the synthetic track Dirt Mile, and 4-5 favorite Conduit in the Turf - and was linked to several horses in the Classic, including the top two finishers Zenyatta and Gio Ponti, the net result was just another 4 for 6 that earned absolutely nothing.

Short of catching either day's lucrative pick-six payoffs, I actually focused three-quarters of my play on a handful of trifecta and superfectas, any of which would have produced generous profits for the entire Breeders' Cup.

For instance, had Justenuffhumor finished second, not third, to Goldikova in the Mile, I would have cashed a superfecta close to the $6,628 it paid for $1 with 22-1 Courageous Cat second, 16-1 Justenuffhumor third, and 17-1 Court Vision fourth.

In the Classic, I would have preferred to see Gio Ponti beat Zenyatta, which would have given me a very profitable superfecta, but instead was left with unadulterated appreciation for the 5-year-old mare while some lessons reluctantly were reinforced by two tough days at the ballpark. Among them were:

The luck of the post-position draw still plays a key role in competitive races, where the pace will probably be influenced by where some horses are drawn.

Consider the poor trip that highly regarded Zensational apparently was doomed to encounter from post 1 in the $2 million BC Sprint. Here was a fast racehorse with a nasty habit of breaking a step slow. Here he was in a high-octane sprint in which two formidable front-running rivals were set to break to his immediate outside.

Applaud yourself if you not only anticipated this scenario, as many did, but followed your convictions to seriously downplay Zensational's winning potential.

About 30 minutes later, we saw the sleekly built 2-year-old Lookin at Lucky also face a post-position predicament that opened the $2 million Juvenile to a chaotic outcome. We all have seen hundreds of races at Santa Anita and other one-mile tracks in which otherwise qualified contenders have lost 1 1/16-mile races from outer post positions in large fields. The relatively short run run to the first turn almost ensures a wide or difficult trip.

That Lookin at Lucky almost overcame this disadvantage and was beaten only a head while second is to his credit as a young racehorse. That I did not take it into proper perspective was the principal reason why I did not press the "all" button in my Saturday pick-six play.

In the Classic, I correctly deduced that Gio Ponti was ready for a top-notch effort after his hard-fought, somewhat surprising defeat on soft, tiring turf to the less accomplished Interpatation in the 1 1/2-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont on Oct. 3. But understanding Gio Ponti's excellent physical condition was only one part of the complex Classic puzzle. In my desire for a very big score, I only used Zenyatta on the second and third level and did not buy the requisite saver superfecta tickets with her on top of Gio Ponti that came back a generous $3,417 for each $1. The lesson learned here was that greed, as always, can cloud one's thinking and a few dollars' worth of $3,417 would have turned Zenyatta's historic performance into a personal confirmation that I had done my job at the highest level.

Taking only 5-2 on Zenyatta did seem a relatively bad bet. Unless of course you saw beyond her modest speed figures and really knew that she was tons the best of the horses she was meeting Saturday. Certainly you could have reasoned that 1 1/4 miles would enhance her powerful late punch. It also would have helped to remember that Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has been a Breeders' Cup ace for much of his career, a point astutely made by some Zenyatta supporters before Smith turned in one of his best career performances.

But of all the lessons I gleaned from the 2009 Breeders' Cup, the following concepts must be carefully considered when playing this game seriously.

Like it or not, we horseplayers are not only in competition with other players, we are in competition with ourselves. To win consistently, we sometimes have to temper our goals; we have to stay in balance with what we think we know. We have to avoid trying to catch the moon on a string when real profit is there for the taking with sensible distribution of our bankrolls. We also have to forgive ourselves for plays that do not work out when the best horse does not win, even when we might have overlooked why the horse would be in more trouble than we first realized.

Yes, there are important post position and pace dynamics that occur in top-level horse races as often as they occur at the $5,000 claiming level. Jockeys make a difference at Charles Town and Santa Anita Park. Just look at the way Smith handled Zenyatta and the way Julien Leparoux handled Informed Decision in the Filly and Mare Sprint among his three BC wins this year.

At the bottom line, I left Santa Anita on Saturday with a busted bankroll, yet filled with reminders that some lessons must be relearned from time to time. I also left with unequivocal admiration for Zenyatta, the best racemare I have ever seen. After the race, 5-2 looked like a generous gift.