10/24/2008 11:00PM

Sexism eclipses a true star


ARCADIA, Calif. - Leaders of the racing industry regularly say that the sport needs Thoroughbred stars who can attract the attention of the general public and create new fans.

Well, the sport has one in Zenyatta. She's a filly. She's undefeated. She has an electrifying style that any fan can appreciate: Zenyatta typically trails all her rivals until she blows past them with a powerful late move.

So how did the industry's marketing masterminds showcase Zenyatta on the biggest day of her racing career? They scheduled the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic for a Friday afternoon telecast on ESPN2.

In its previous 24 runnings, when it was known as the Distaff, this event was run on Saturday as part of a full day of championship races for both sexes. But now the Breeders' Cup has transformed itself into a two-day event, trying to emulate the success that Churchill Downs enjoys in running the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby on a Friday and Saturday. In order to fill the two days, the Cup has expanded to 14 races (including a few that can't be considered championship events in any true sense). To make the Friday card attractive and give it an identity, the Breeders' Cup scheduled all five of its stakes for fillies and mares on this past Friday's program at Santa Anita, dubbing it Filly Friday. Thus was Zenyatta bumped out of Saturday's telecast on ABC and ESPN. It is a pity that more casual fans didn't get the chance to see and appreciate her yesterday. The 4-year-old was facing a formidable lineup of challengers, and she blew them all away.

Zenyatta was dead last after she came out of the starting gate - just the place where she likes to be. In her eight previous starts, she had rallied from last place on seven occasions. Her jockey, Mike Smith, let her dawdle while three lightly regarded speedsters were in the front of the pack. On the final turn, before swinging into the short Santa Anita stretch, the favorite had only one horse beaten. For another horse, this would have been an occasion for panic. For Zenyatta, it was no sweat.

Smith swung Zenyatta six wide turning for home, unleashed her powerful burst of speed, and in a matter of a few strides the outcome of the Ladies' Classic was no longer in doubt. Zenyatta won comfortably over four New York invaders who were Grade 1 stakes winners. The crowd at Santa Anita roared for her achievement, moving owner Jerry Moss almost to tears.

"She's a great star," said the recording-company executive, "and people understand that."

Zenyatta is exceptional in maintaining a perfect record despite a style that invariably gets horses into trouble and gets them beaten. She is the rare animal, too, who excels on California's synthetic surfaces - where she has spent most of her career - but has delivered the same kind of blockbuster performance on dirt. She is a cinch to be the champion older female of 2008.

Zenyatta wasn't the only exceptional performer on Filly Friday. Stardom Bound, a 2-year-old who also likes to rally from far behind, circled the field from 12th place to capture the Juvenile Fillies. Smith, who rode her, had already dubbed her "Baby Z" - a little Zenyatta. Forever Together unleashed a strong stretch run to win the Filly and Mare Turf. Ventura sped seven furlongs in a sensational 1:19.90 to capture the Filly and Mare Sprint.

The quality of some of these performances suggests a truth about the role of gender in Thoroughbred racing. Top-class females are fully capable of beating their male counterparts: The undefeated filly Zarkava won Europe's most important race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, earlier this month, overpowering the continent's best colts. Few racing dramas stir the interest of the public more than a battle of the sexes - such as when the filly Rags to Riches beat Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes. The industry ought to encourage such showdowns.

In Europe, females have to challenge males if they want to run for large purses. But the Breeders' Cup offers so much big money for the fillies-only races that it creates a disincentive for females to challenge males. Before there was a Filly and Mare Sprint, three different females beat open company in the Sprint. But now the owners of top filly sprinters run them for $1 million against their own sex instead of tackling a much tougher challenge for $2 million. In its effort to showcase fillies and mares, the Breeders' Cup has in fact marginalized them. And Zenyatta most certainly does not deserve to be marginalized. But she may have further opportunities to prove her worth.

When Moss was asked if the filly would now be retired, he said, "She's just too good not to run again." If she does indeed compete next year as a 5-year-old, perhaps the Breeders' Cup organization will deem her ready for prime time.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post