08/03/2008 11:00PM

Zenyatta, Indian Blessing far outshine Big Brown

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NEW YORK - There is winning pretty, and winning ugly. Zenyatta and Indian Blessing won pretty Saturday in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar and Test Stakes at Saratoga, respectively. Big Brown won ugly in Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Buy, if you like, the spin that proposes Big Brown showed great heart and determination to run down Coal Play late. Believe, if you wish, the line that Coal Play, who had previously won only 2 of 8 starts, ran a giant race. I don't. Big Brown, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was life and death to win a Haskell that he was an absolute and total standout in on paper. And that was about the last scenario I expected on Sunday.

In truth, no one was certain what to expect from Big Brown in his first start since being eased in the Belmont Stakes. Given the way he towered over his competition and his 1-5 odds, the outcome expected by most was a romping win. Off of his mysterious performance in the Belmont with a Triple Crown sweep on the line, another "did not finish" would have been far less surprising than what we got. What we got was Big Brown, after looking like he was a dead piece turning for home, prevailing in what devolved into merely a war of attrition while drifting out noticeably in the late stages. Not pretty, for sure.

And now, you can bet the Big Brown retirement pool is back up and running, and doing big business. Big Brown's connections are smart people. And even if their colt does not have a physical issue that would help explain Sunday's mediocre exhibition and impact his future, they probably know going after Curlin and Commentator right now, off the kind of performance they got in the Haskell, is senseless. Whatever happens, Big Brown has already wrapped up a divisional Eclipse Award, anyway.

In contrast to a weak 3-year-old male division this year, perhaps the two best divisions in terms of depth of quality at the top so far this season are the older dirt females and the 3-year-old fillies. And it speaks to just how good they are that Zenyatta and Indian Blessing are important players in these divisions.

Zenyatta is, in fact, more than just an important player in the older female category. She is the undisputed leader of it, and she showed in the Clement Hirsch just how she got there.

Some - okay, maybe only "genius" me - thought Zenyatta might have been ripe to lose for the first time in her life Saturday after having the closest call of her career last time out in the Vanity Handicap. After perhaps being thrown slightly off her game in the Vanity by a runaway pacesetter, and after certainly benefiting from poor racing luck on the part of close runner-up Tough Tiz's Sis, Zenyatta was hard pressed to get the job done. She showed a vulnerability that had not been seen in her five decisive victories before that.

Vulnerability, schmulnerability. Zenyatta had winner written all over her Saturday before even reaching the stretch, and when she still had five opponents in front of her. That's how fast and easily she was moving. Zenyatta was moving so fast and so easily that when she passed Model to take command in deep stretch, she made Model, who finished second, and the rest look as though they were freeze-framed. And had Zenyatta not been taken well in hand late, there would have been more than 6 1/4 lengths between her and the Tough Tiz's Sis who got so close in the Vanity but ran third in the Hirsch.

Think about this for a moment: Since she clinched last year's older female Eclipse Award by virtue of her victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, Ginger Punch has won 4 of 5 starts, all by open lengths, the most recent two being Grade 1 events. Yet Zenyatta left Ginger Punch eight lengths behind last spring in the Apple Blossom Handicap. It's just impossible not to wonder just what kind of freak Zenyatta really is.

With CCA Oaks and Mother Goose winner Music Note, Kentucky Oaks and Delaware Oaks winner Proud Spell, and the sensational but sidelined Acorn winner Zaftig all ahead of her, Indian Blessing is not, at least at the moment, in quite the same position in her division - a division she dominated last year for an Eclipse Award - that Zenyatta is in hers. But it says a lot about how strong this class of 3-year-old fillies is, not to mention Indian Blessing's abilities, that when you go looking for a stronger candidate than Indian Blessing for this year's champion female sprinter, you will look long and hard, and ultimately fruitlessly.

The Test was Indian Blessing's second straight dominating, going-away Grade 1 score since cutting back to sprint distances. And it is certainly not a coincidence that Indian Blessing's two recent huge wins came in concert with her new ability to rate off the early pace. It will be interesting to see what her people do with her next. Now that she has learned how to relax early, there might be a temptation to stretch her back out, which probably could be done without jeopardizing her status for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. But the 111 Beyer Figure Indian Blessing earned in the Test, combined with the 110 she got previously winning the Prioress, are two of the top six highest Beyers so far this year going seven furlongs or less for members of either gender. So why mess with a good thing?