09/29/2010 3:08PM

Zenyatta going for a huge finish

Benoit & Associates
Zenyatta wins the Clement L. Hirsch for the third time, the 18th victory of her undefeated career.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Every day, year after year, through a Presidential election, two Olympics games, and a few Super Bowls, life at the barn of trainer John Shirreffs has been warmed by one constant, Zenyatta. Her racing career began in November of 2007, and, now 18 starts later, she remains the embodiment of perfection.

Just two races remain in her career, and then – one year after a false end – it will be off to the breeding shed. She is scheduled to run on Saturday in the Grade 1, $250,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes at Hollywood Park, and then will defend her title in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, to be run this year on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.

As the days remaining with her wind down to weeks, and soon days, Shirreffs is trying to savor every last moment.

“She’s very much a blessing,” Shirreffs said at his Hollywood Park barn office the other morning. “She’s so generous in every way you could imagine. She’s so fantastic. Who could have imagined what she has accomplished? That takes the nervousness out of watching her and allows us to enjoy what she’s done.”

ROAD TO THE BREEDERS' CUP: DRF's divisional rankings (PDF) | Race-by-race coverage

When Zenyatta won the Classic last year, becoming the first female to win that race, she did it on the synthetic Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. This year, she will travel to Churchill Downs, where she has never raced, though she did train there briefly last year in anticipation of making her 2009 debut, which was delayed by poor weather.

This year’s Classic is shaping up as a terrific race. Blame, the winner of the Whitney at Saratoga, has the home-field advantage, having captured the Clark Handicap last fall, and the Stephen Foster this year, at Churchill Downs. Quality Road, second in the Whitney, came back and won the Woodward. Lookin At Lucky, the winner of the Preakness and Haskell, ran well at Churchill Downs despite a horrific trip in the Kentucky Derby.

Should any of those horses – Zenyatta, Blame, Quality Road, or Lookin At Lucky – win the Classic, they would be the front-runner for Horse of the Year.

But Rail Trip, Richard’s Kid, Twirling Candy, and the Japanese invader Espoir City add considerable depth to the prospective field.

They all, however, must go through Zenyatta, who has never failed to meet a challenge.

“There were a couple of times I thought she was in trouble, but like a true, true champion, she pulls it off somehow,” said Mike Smith, who has ridden Zenyatta in her last 15 races. “She’s training as well if not better than she did last year.”

This will be the 27th Breeders’ Cup, and the seventh run at Churchill Downs, which has played host to more Breeders’ Cups than anyone. Churchill Downs also will be the Breeders’ Cup site in 2011, following Santa Anita as tracks hosting the Breeders’ Cup in consecutive years.

As in recent years, the Breeders’ Cup comprises 14 races, with six on Friday, Nov. 5, and eight, including the Classic, on Saturday, Nov. 6. The Friday card largely will be run under the lights, marking the first time in history that Breeders’ Cup races will be run under lights. It is not, however, the first time the races will be run at night, as anyone who witnessed the 1988 BC Classic at Churchill Downs can attest.

Most of the top contenders in this year’s Classic are scheduled to run on Saturday, with five significant races at four tracks.

Zenyatta will have just a handful of female rivals in the Lady’s Secret, a race she won the previous two years when the Oak Tree meeting was held at Santa Anita. In both those years, Zenyatta parlayed a Lady’s Secret victory into a Breeders’ Cup win. She also captured the Ladies’ Classic in 2008. Both she and Goldikova, who is scheduled to defend her title in the BC Mile, are trying to become the first horses to win three Breeders’ Cup races.

Also on Saturday at Hollywood Park is the Grade 1, $250,000 Goodwood Stakes, which includes Richard’s Kid, a two-time winner of the Pacific Classic, and the unbeaten, mercurial Twirling Candy, a 3-year-old colt who will be facing older horses for the first time. Smith is riding Twirling Candy for the first time. If both Twirling Candy and Zenyatta win, though, the choice for Smith going forward is clear.

“When she gets the opportunity to run her race, she stands alone,” Smith said.

Blame will have his final prep for the Classic in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Like Zenyatta, he has been brilliantly managed all year, with the Classic the goal.

“We’ve worked backwards from the Classic going back to December ’09,” Al Stall Jr., the trainer of Blame, said on a teleconference earlier this week. “We’ve always felt like we had the home-field advantage. His record at Churchill is great.”

The Jockey Club Gold Cup also includes Rail Trip, who will be making his first start since his transfer by co-owner Mace Siegel this summer from trainer Ron Ellis to Richard Dutrow Jr., and Fly Down, the Belmont and Travers runner-up.

Lookin At Lucky is at Hoosier Park for the Grade 2, $500,000 Indiana Derby, his first start since the Haskell on Aug. 1. He was ill following the Haskell, and was in light training at Del Mar for several weeks, but has been on an accelerated training pattern in recent weeks.

Also Saturday is the Grade 2, $250,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, though there are no top-ranked horses in that field.

Quality Road is awaiting the Classic, being as he has a history of running well fresh for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Espoir City, a terror on dirt in Japan, is scheduled to run in a one-mile dirt race there on Oct. 11, then fly to the United States on Oct. 19 to begin his final preparations for the Classic.