10/22/2010 5:37PM

Little glory in the early morning


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - They get no headlines, no groupies, not even an extra oat. On a chess board, they'd be pawns. In a battle, they'd be the Marines, over the top first and out of the trenches, anonymous heroes, but heroes for sure.

Sarbonne is a big, good-looking son of Seeking the Gold out of a Cherokee Run mare. He is 3 years old, and he has run four times so far without winning, which pulls him up about $20,000 short of the $27,000 Ann and Jerry Moss paid for him as a 2-year-old last year in Florida.

Sarbonne did, however, finish a fairly promising third in open maiden company on the turf at Hollywood Park in July, his most recent race. So all is not lost, good things come to those who wait, and all that jazz.

El Vino, a little pepperpot, is a 4-year-old son of Include who cost the Mosses $160,000 as a Keeneland yearling from the consignment of Brereton Jones. He has raced just once, but no one cheered when he beat only one horse in a maiden race on the grass at Santa Anita last March.

The careers of both Sarbonne and El Vino have taken a backseat lately, a backseat to the Big Girl in the barn, Zenyatta, who used them again as workmates Friday morning at Hollywood Park in what was an exercise of serious significance as she prepares to defend her title in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, on Nov. 6.
There was a good crowd for a workout, including the remnants of the "60 Minutes" crew that equipped Mike Smith with an HD helmet-cam for the workout. John Shirreffs, the real director of the piece, had quite a performance planned. Zenyatta was going to work seven-eighths of a mile, in company through the first half of the work with Sarbonne and through the last half with El Vino. Mike Smith, as usual, would be on Zenyatta. Isabelle Bourez would ride Sarbonne, and Steve Willard, Zenyatta's regular gallop-mate, would handle El Vino.

"He's been a good work horse for us," Willard said, sitting outside El Vino's stall. "But half a mile or five-eighths is all he really wants of her. So we've got to have something else going seven-eighths to kind of start her off."

"Yeah," said Mike Smith, nodding toward El Vino, "he kind of wanted to quit on us the last couple of times. He's fine when he's four or five lengths in front of her, but when he gets in with her, he's kind of intimidated."

Smith was kind, making sure El Vino did not hear the remarks, since it was clear by the colt's demeanor that he is a proud little colt, and probably sensitive to the fact that he is thrown into a ring time after time against a sparring partner upon whom he will never lay a glove. Muhammad Ali had Jimmy Ellis and Joe Frazier had Ken Norton, both of them second bananas who rose to the top of the game. El Vino is not in their league, but don't tell him that.

"He really doesn't need those things hanging between his legs," Willard said, nodding toward El Vino. "But we don't want to cut him until we're done working her. After the Breeders' Cup he loses his huevos. That's his reward."

Is this a tough game or what?

As for the more elegant Sarbonne, his work rider gazed fondly at the colt as they all waited for Zenyatta to be tacked up and led out of her stall.

"He's worked with her one time before, going shorter, and he was perfect," said Bourez, who rode more than two dozen winners in her native France. "But going seven-eighths today, no way he would do it alone. I mean, I think he could do it, but it would not be good for him. And I like him very much."

They are not machines, that is clear, and when their competitive juices flow, care must be taken to mitigate the impact. Willard laid out the choreography for the work.

"Mike and Isabelle will start at the six-and-a-half, with Zenyatta on the outside, and I'll be waiting at the half-mile pole," he explained. "I'll start galloping, and what Isabelle will do is run right up on my butt and take a pull. Mike will stay right where he is on the outside, and when Sarbonne backs out I can open up a little and give Zenyatta a target to run at through the last eighths of a mile."

And that is precisely what happened, with very little deviation from the plan, other than the fact that Zenyatta and El Vino moved along as a team for pretty much the final eighth of a mile, which officially ended a sixteenth of a mile past the finish line. Zenyatta, edging to the front at the end, was given a clocking of 1:27.20 on a synthetic surface softened by rain.

"It's always a matter of giving her a target," Willard noted. "If she loses a target, she gets complacent. But we taught her that. I'll bet she had 12 or 14 works, dropping her in behind horses, before she ever run her first race. I'd just sit there and just wait, wait, wait, and then -- boom! -- let her go that last sixteenth or eighth, depending on how far in front my target was.

"So it became up to Mike to ask her, otherwise she won't go," Willard added. "She's waited for the cues, all these years, and she will wait all day until you ask her. Then, when you do, she's got another three gears. Last year in the Breeders' Cup, she was in second gear at the three-eighths pole, then switched into third gear coming around the quarter pole. Then Mike started to hit fourth gear, just holding her lightly there, and that's when she hit overdrive and went by the rest of them. So that's five gears."

Just five? A Formula One engine, at least the equivalent of what Zenyatta represents as a racehorse, has seven forward gear ratios. How does Willard know there might not be more under Big Mama's bonnet?

"Well, there might be," Willard replied, and smiled. "Mike just hasn't had to use them yet."