10/15/2009 11:00PM

No sense pressing Zenyatta

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Barbara D. Livingston
Even an unbeaten record for 2009 and a BC Classic victory would likely not earn Zenyatta Horse of the Year honors.

NEW YORK - In 1988, as undefeated Personal Ensign neared her 13th and final career start in the Breeders' Cup, not one person in the world of racing even suggested - much less demanded - that she run in the Classic rather than the Distaff. She won the Distaff in gloriously dramatic style in a race no one will ever forget. She received only a handful of votes for Horse of the Year against classic winner Alysheba, but was voted into the Hall of Fame the first time she became eligible.

Zenyatta, who matched Personal Ensign's 13-for-13 record last Saturday by winning the Clement L. Hirsch, is now poised to make what may be her final career start in the Breeders' Cup. As her connections ponder whether to run in the Classic or the Ladies' Classic, they are being widely advised that they must face males in the Classic in order to validate her quality and her record.

What (besides the name of the Distaff) has changed so dramatically in 21 years?

The situations are not perfectly analogous. Personal Ensign had gotten the facing-males thing over with earlier that summer, winning a three-horse Whitney Handicap against Gulch and King's Swan.

Also, the 1988 Classic field was one of the best ever assembled: The first five finishers were Alysheba, Seeking the Gold, Waquoit, Forty Niner, and Cryptoclearance, possibly all better horses than the motley crew of Europeans, grass and synthetic specialists, and one-hit wonders pointing for this year's Classic.

Finally, the Distaff lineup was similarly more impressive that year: Personal Ensign had to run down that year's Kentucky Derby (Winning Colors) and Oaks (Goodbye Halo) winners to triumph in the "lesser" race.

Those differences aside, the idea that Zenyatta somehow "must" run in the Classic seems misguided, and driven less by giving her the best chance at retiring undefeated than by an overemphasis on her chances of winning the Horse of the Year title - a flawed premise being driven by self-interested promoters and broadcasters.

This year's Breeders' Cup is an event in search of a marketable story line. If Zenyatta runs Friday in the Ladies' Classic, the Saturday card has no superstars and no unifying theme beyond the absences of Rachel Alexandra and Sea the Stars. So the plot being concocted is that Zenyatta must run Saturday against males in the Classic, and that a victory there would make her, rather than Rachel Alexandra, the Horse of the Year.

The only problem with that scenario is that even if Zenyatta were to win the Classic, Rachel Alexandra would probably still win the Horse of the Year balloting, and it might not even be particularly close. Saying so is not meant to denigrate Zenyatta in any way, but only to reflect the reality of how their respective records would look at season's end.

Rachel Alexandra ended her campaign 8 for 8 over eight different tracks, beat fillies by unprecedented margins in the Oaks and Mother Goose, and beat males three times in Grade 1 races. Zenyatta, even with a Classic victory, would be 5 for 5 on the year, with all her starts coming in Southern California, and with a single victory against males. It would be a wonderful end to a wonderful career, but it probably wouldn't make her Horse of the Year.

But so what? Other than maybe drumming up some last-minute ticket sales and perhaps slightly boosting what are sure to be the usual dismal television ratings, why should her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, care whether they leave the Eclipse Award dinner with one as opposed to two more statuettes? People talk about it making her more valuable, but she's already priceless and not for sale, and headed for life as a broodmare with her first foal sure to be a homebred carrying the Mosses' colors.

The idea that they "owe" racing a Classic start by Zenyatta is offensive nonsense. They have kept her in training for three seasons through the end of her 5-year-old campaign, and a start in the Classic is not going to save, energize, or promote the sport to new heights. Even great Breeders' Cups don't do that. The game will go on, and there will be much better Breeders' Cups ahead.

The Mosses face a difficult, if not excruciating, choice. If they are entirely comfortable jeopardizing her record and trying the Classic, swell, but there's nothing shabby about joining Bayakoa as the only two-time winner of the Distaff, or in retiring undefeated and 14 for 14. A year from now, will it seem like such a good idea to have run third in the Classic - which is where I think Personal Ensign would have finished in that race in 1988 - just to try to win an award that may have already been out of her reach?