10/04/2010 3:54PM

Zenyatta in gear for Classic defense

Benoit & Associates
Zenyatta makes it 19 wins without a loss by taking the Lady's Secret. Next comes the Breeders' Cup Classic.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Of the many things that can be said about Zenyatta, this one is certainly true: She has never needed an excuse. Track surface, pace, weight, distance, trip – none of it has mattered, for nearly three years running, a truly remarkable feat. She ran her record to a perfect 19 for 19 on Saturday at Hollywood Park in the Lady’s Secret Stakes, which for the third straight year has set her up for a start in the Breeders’ Cup.

Twice previously, in the Ladies’ Classic in 2008 and the Classic in 2009, Zenyatta prevailed. This year’s race, a title defense against males in the BC Classic on Nov. 6, will be different, though. It is undoubtedly her final career start after an abbreviated retirement late last year. It will be her first start at Churchill Downs. And it will be a showdown for Horse of the Year, because – unlike last year, when Rachel Alexandra did not come to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup – this year’s Classic should feature all the leading candidates for Horse of the Year, several of whom also had their final BC preps on Saturday.

At Belmont Park, Haynesfield led from start to finish to upset Blame in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. At Hoosier Park, Lookin At Lucky rallied strongly to beat an overmatched field in the Indiana Derby. And just one hour after Zenyatta’s dramatic victory in the Lady’s Secret, Richard’s Kid used similar late-running tactics to capture the Goodwood Stakes.

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Zenyatta got a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. Haynesfield earned a 107, Richard’s Kid a 105, and Lookin At Lucky a 103.

Zenyatta came out of the race well, trainer John Shirreffs said. On Sunday morning, she was furiously pawing the ground while in her stall, anxious to get out for a walk. Her resilience and consistency has left Shirreffs awestruck.

“She’s shown so many dimensions,” Shirreffs said. “She’s truly a blessing.”

Shirreffs said Zenyatta would remain at her home base of Hollywood Park through the end of this month, then ship to Churchill Downs early the week of the Breeders’ Cup, because there is less chance of weather interrupting her training in California as opposed to Kentucky. Shirreffs used a similar schedule earlier this year when he shipped Zenyatta to Oaklawn Park for the Apple Blossom Handicap, one of two times she has raced on natural dirt.

“Not knowing what the weather will be, we’ll probably wait and go late,” Shirreffs said.

Shirreffs watched the Lady’s Secret from a platform near the winner’s circle, where grooms usually gather. He stood alongside Zenyatta’s groom, Mario Espinoza, during the race, and though neither man talked during the race, Shirreffs audibly exhaled with relief when Zenyatta surged to the front.

“You can tell when she puts it in gear, she just lowers her head and goes vroom,” Shirreffs said Sunday morning.

Minutes after the race, when Zenyatta came back for a final curtain call in front of her hometown fans, Shirreffs, standing on the track, clapped in appreciation, then turned and admired the packed grandstand, from which the more than 25,000 fans in attendance gave her a standing ovation.

“It was so much fun to feel the energy of the crowd and the excitement,” Shirreffs said.

The other big winner on the day was trainer Bob Baffert, who sent out Lookin At Lucky and Richard’s Kid to their respective victories.

“That was a good day,” Baffert said Monday morning. “Lucky, what a will to win he has, huh? He’s really getting good. He and Zenyatta, they lock in on whoever’s in front.”

Lookin At Lucky rallied from last to first in the Indiana Derby on a muddy track.

“At least we know he can handle the mud,” Baffert said.

Lookin At Lucky returned to Hollywood Park on Monday. Baffert said he would train all his California-based Breeders’ Cup horses locally before heading to Churchill Downs “right on top of it.”

Haynesfield, by contrast, would ship to Kentucky well before the Classic because “he’s got a few little antics,” according to Toby Sheets, the New York-based assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen who has overseen Haynesfield’s training. Sheets said a decision on whether to run would be made in consultation with owner Harvey Weinstein, who races as Turtle Bird Stable. Haynesfield has never raced outside New York, where he was bred.

Blame, the Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up, returned to Keeneland on Monday morning, where he will train until moving to Churchill just days before the Classic, according to trainer Al Stall Jr.

Fly Down, who finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, also will go on to the Classic, trainer Nick Zito said. Fly Down earned his maiden race win at Churchill.

– additional reporting by Steve Andersen and David Grening