11/05/2009 12:00AM

Quite a retirement party

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Barbara D. Livingston
Einstein takes a walk with Helen Pitts, his trainer of four years. With the Breeders' Cup Classic to be Einstein's last race, "He deserves to be a daddy now," said Pitts.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It was late last Wednesday afternoon, and John Shirreffs was leaning against the shed row rail at his Santa Anita barn, pondering a question that pertained to what figures to be Zenyatta's final start in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

Shirreffs does a lot of that - ponder - affording both the question and the questioner the respect of serious thought. There is an element of Eastern philosophy involved, as well. Ask him what time it is and he might reply, "Where?" or "You mean now?" But on this particular occasion, the issue was letting go, saying goodbye, to a horse of a lifetime like Zenyatta.

"I learned that lesson a long time ago, when I worked with yearlings at a farm in California," Shirreffs said. "They came in, and you really bonded with them. Groomed every hair. Spent hours and hours helping them learn what to do. And then, one day, they were loaded on the vans and that was it. They were gone.

"As a trainer you have to accept that," Shirreffs added. "You can only hope that while they're with you, you are able to teach them something. Something that has helped them along."

Just around the corner, Helen Pitts was fussing over her late-afternoon routine with Einstein, fishing around a tack box for scissors and black Vet-Wrap while assistant Kenny Reeder saw to the feed. Einstein had just received a routine acupuncture treatment and given a walk on the ring, where he would pause at each turn to stare into the distance.

"At one end he looks at the mountains, at the other it's J.C. Penney's at the mall," Pitts said. "I can only guess what he thinks he sees."

The same question was posed to Pitts, bidding farewell to Einstein after four solid years of coming to work each day and seeing that handsome black head hanging out of the first stall door.

"It's hard, hard. I'm always hoping for the best for him," Pitts said. "And he deserves to go be a daddy now. But it will be a sad day in our barn when he leaves.

"He'll love being a stallion. Don't get me wrong," she added. "'But I think he'll miss being by the office, getting peppermints and carrots. And he'll miss the training."

Shed no tears for Shirreffs, though, nor for Pitts and her crew. They were the ones who got to play at the top of the game with Zenyatta and Einstein, while the rest of us could only watch. When they meet for the first and only time on Saturday, Zenyatta will be trying to stretch her unbeaten streak to 14 races, spanning just shy of two years, while Einstein will try to win for the 12th time in 29 starts, dating back to October of 2005, and add the Classic to his victory earlier this year in the Santa Anita Handicap.

And there is still hard work to be done. Einstein takes the worst of it, having to ship to California for Kentucky, while Zenyatta needed only to van across town from Hollywood Park late Wednesday morning. By midweek their major conditioning was done, leaving the last 72 hours for speculation over their performances on Saturday and their eventual place in the history of the game.

Zenyatta's legacy is still up for grabs. Beating males in her last time at bat would chisel her record in stone for the ages. Einstein, on the other hand, has proven mortal on more than one occasion, and unlucky on several others, most notably last spring, when he should have won the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. The race was not held against him, though, and should he win the Classic, he would undoubtedly earn an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding older horse of 2009.

Not bad for a horse who started out a second banana. Earlier in her career as a public trainer, Pitts was also in charge of a maiden colt named Curlin. Then, after one splashy start, a healthy hunk of Curlin was sold and he was switched to Steve Asmussen to train.

Pitts consoled herself with the black colt who had already won the 2006 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup and was looking better every day. In 2007 Einstein added the Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds, then survived a scare in the Dixie when he lost Robby Albarado while avoiding a fallen opponent.

As it turned out, the Dixie rattled the trainer more than the horse. Pitts backed off and did not run Einstein again until the following January in Florida. Since then, Einstein has been a relentless presence among the best runners on turf, dirt, and the emerging wave of synthetics, over which the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic will be run.

"The surface feels different than it did when he was here last March," said Pitts, who gets aboard Einstein regularly. "Back then, it was what I'd call almost fluffy. But it's a lot tighter now. He doesn't seem to feel any difference, though."

So let them loose, one last time, and show the kids just how it's done. These are Thoroughbreds in full, Einstein and Zenyatta, both allowed to evolve into a maturity that can only be appreciated. On Saturday, they will be surrounded in the Classic gate by a host of talented 3- and 4-year-olds, plus the 6-year-old Awesome Gem. But don't be surprised if it is the regal 5-year-old mare and the 7-year-old stallion on the line together at the end, teaching us one last lesson in durability and class.

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