08/01/2008 11:00PM

Zenyatta has rivals thinking of second

Benoit & Associates
Zenyatta is unbeaten in six starts.

DEL MAR, Calif. - It takes a smart aleck's point of view to envision beating Zenyatta in Saturday's $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar.

"If the gates don't open for Zenyatta, it gives us a chance," said Mike Mitchell, who trains the multiple stakes winner Romance Is Diane.

Sorry, Mike. That's unlikely to happen. Romance Is Diane, a two-time graded stakes winner, will need to run the race of her career to beat Zenyatta in the Grade 2 Hirsch, which is run over 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares on the Polytrack.

Zenyatta is unbeaten in six starts for owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs and will be heavily favored in the Hirsch. Romance Is Diane finished behind Zenyatta twice earlier this year, a third in the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita in January and a fourth in the Grade 2 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park in May.

"All I've ever done is try to duck her, and I don't want to duck her any longer," said a more serious Mitchell.

Zenyatta is the 124-pound topweight in the Hirsch, spotting the other eight fillies and mares in the race five to 12 pounds. A 4-year-old, Zenyatta has won four stakes and has won her six races by a combined 15 3/4 lengths.

In her last start, Zenyatta won the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap by a half-length, the narrowest winning margin of her career. Ridden by Mike Smith, who has the mount Saturday, Zenyatta launched her rally on the backstretch and outfinished Tough Tiz's Sis, who is part of the Hirsch field.

In the Vanity, Zenyatta was forced to move early in pursuit of Silver Z, who led by as many as 10 lengths in the first half-mile. Silver Z is entered for the Hirsch, but trainer Brian Koriner said Thursday that she may start in the Solana Beach Handicap later in August. If Silver Z runs in the Hirsch, she is expected to set the pace.

Tough Tiz's Sis will be near the front regardless of the lineup. She was second to Silver Z on the backstretch of the Vanity and was catching Zenyatta in the final furlong. Despite that outstanding effort, trainer Bob Baffert is realistic about Tough Tiz's Sis's chances in the Hirsch.

"I think I got closer to her because the race set up weird," Baffert said of the Vanity. "Everyone moved at the half-mile pole. Zenyatta made a five-eighths move. You'll get close to them every once in a while."

Shirreffs said that with nine horses in the Hirsch, it's less likely one of them will be able to sneak off to a big lead, like Silver Z did in the Vanity.

"Hopefully with a big field it will be a more normal scenario," Shirreffs said. "It's the small fields that are unpredictable."

Zenyatta typically races at the back of the field early and makes a strong rush to the front in the final three-eighths.

"She's the same," Shirreffs said. "She comes out of it great and doesn't seem too stressed."

Zenyatta has earned $734,580. Her remarkable season, including a win against reigning champion older female Ginger Punch in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in April, has made her the leading candidate for the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 24. While Shirreffs thought highly of Zenyatta before her career started, her undefeated record has left even him surprised.

"It would have been presumptuous on my part to think that," he said. "How would we know she'd handle Grade 1 fillies like she does?"