10/27/2008 11:00PM

Top honor may be close call

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta, with Mike Smith up, won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, her seventh victory in seven starts this year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that all the debates have taken place, the final electioneering will ramp up from supporters of both camps. Ultimately, voters will have to decide if the country supports the status quo of the past year, or will move in a new direction and embrace change.

So, who should be Horse of the Year: Curlin or Zenyatta?

That is the choice Eclipse Award voters will face following the 25th Breeders' Cup this past weekend at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, has been ranked as the best horse in the world for a year. Although Curlin, in what might have been his final career start, finished fourth in the BC Classic on Saturday behind the European colt Raven's Pass, his body of work for the calendar year is stunning in its ambition. Curlin in 2008 won major races on two continents half a world apart, and was taken out of his comfort zone for races on both turf and Pro-Ride, in which he turned in respectable, though losing, efforts.

Zenyatta completed a perfect season with a victory in the BC Ladies' Classic on Friday. Seven times to the post in 2008, seven wins. It's hard to argue with perfection. But Zenyatta raced exclusively in races restricted to female horses, and only once left her home state of California, for a race in Arkansas. She never tried turf. She never raced against males.

It's like comparing two other candidates on which voters will soon cast ballots. Their attributes could not be more different.

"I have such a sense of pride and accomplishment with Curlin, second to nothing," Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Curlin, said Monday from Churchill Downs. "He's amazing. He never blinked. You have to look at the totality of the year.

"I'm proud as hell as to who he is. His losing Saturday doesn't change how I feel about him. He's the only horse in history to earn $5 million in back-to-back years. As great as he was last year, he had a better year this year."

Even though Curlin was defeated as the heavy favorite on Saturday, the crowd gave him a heartfelt ovation after the race.

"It was very touching the ovation that he got," Asmussen said.

Curlin traveled from California to Kentucky on Monday and was scheduled to join Asmussen's barn at Churchill Downs. Asmussen said Jess Jackson, the majority owner of Curlin, had yet to announce whether Curlin would race next year or go to stud.

"Nothing has been decided," he said. But Asmussen several times since the Classic lapsed into past tense when speaking of Curlin's career.

"It's been a remarkable run," Asmussen said at Santa Anita on Sunday morning. "He's been a throwback from the beginning, and he's a durable and special horse."

Zenyatta is also a special horse, and she beat an outstanding field in the Ladies' Classic to put the fitting end to her 2008 campaign.

"I think because Zenyatta is undefeated and beat such a strong field, she should strongly be considered for Horse of the Year," her trainer, John Shirreffs, said at his Hollywood Park barn on Sunday morning.

Unlike Curlin, Zenyatta never ventured outside her wheelhouse, two-turn races on the main track for fillies and mares. Asked if Zenyatta should have been in the Classic in order to state her case for Horse of the Year against the best in the world, Shirreffs made reference to the breakdown of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.

"On the heels of some of the things that happened earlier in the year, it was in the best interest of Zenyatta, and in the best interest of racing, to run in the Ladies' Classic against the best fillies in the world, and they all showed up," Shirreffs said.

"It's always in your mind when fillies cross over, not just Eight Belles," he said. "I just didn't feel it was the right thing to do. I felt it was important for her to win a Breeders' Cup race and be a champion. That was more important than racing in the Classic."

Shirreffs rarely gets in winner's circle photos, preferring to watch the scene from the side. He made a rare appearance in the winner's circle after the Ladies' Classic, the first time he had done so since Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby in 2005.

"Some things you just have to do," he said, laughing. "It certainly was satisfying. Between the Lady's Secret and the Breeders' Cup, there was mounting pressure. It was great to see her perform so well on the most important day of her life."

Shirreffs said owners Jerry and Ann Moss have not said whether they intend to retire Zenyatta or race her next year at age 5, though he said, "They really enjoy racing their horses."

Shirreffs said Zenyatta would be walked for a number of days, then return to light training.

"It's tough to just keep her in the barn," he said. "After a couple of weeks, I'm sure we'll want to do something or she'll kick the walls down."

Shirreffs said that Tiago, who was third in the Classic, also would remain in training next year.

Raven's Pass, the Classic winner, is also scheduled to race next year, and he will be pointed to a repeat attempt in the Classic, according to published reports in England.

John Gosden, the trainer of Raven's Pass, opined that the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita better suited his horse than Curlin.

"Curlin has a phenomenal high-cruising speed and he gallops them into the ground," Gosden said. "On that surface, he's vulnerable to a horse with a tremendous burst of speed."

Raven's Pass was one of five European-based horses to win on Saturday.

The Breeders' Cup was adjudged an overwhelming success by most involved. The biggest relief for the sport might have been that 14 races were run on national television, and no catastrophic injuries occurred, unlike at this year's Kentucky Derby or last year's Breeders' Cup. The Pro-Ride surface produced fast times, but Ian Pearse, the head of Pro-Ride, said that was not unexpected.

"When you have a resilient surface and the best horses in the world running on it, you're going to have fast times," he said.

Said Gosden: "It was tremendous to have two great days of racing, to have it go so cleanly, so good for all the horses. Even Bob Baffert can't complain about the track after winning two Grade 1's."

Trainer Eoin Harty, who is based at Santa Anita, praised the surface, and offered constructive criticism on improvements the Breeders' Cup could make when it returns to Santa Anita next year.

"They're probably going to have to build another barn for the Europeans. There will be a huge European presence next year," Harty said. "I like it here. If you're going to have an international event, it should be fair for everybody. On dirt, or the slop we had at Monmouth last year, it's not fair for anybody. There's no kickback on this surface. I think, by and large, the best horses won."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen and Alan Shuback