08/04/2009 11:00PM

For Zenyatta, perfection may not clinch title

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DEL MAR, Calif. - When the calendar turned from 2008 to 2009, Zenyatta was the unquestioned leader for Horse of the Year. Her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, didn't hesitate to keep her in training for another year following her victory in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, which stretched her unbeaten record to nine. Curlin, who bearhugged the Horse of the Year title for two years, was retired. There was no outstanding front-runner for the Triple Crown races. The world was hers.

That world has been turned not quite upside down, but certainly from its axis. Through no fault of her own, Zenyatta, even though she has added two more wins to her perfect record, finds herself in a race quickly slipping from her grasp. The ascension of Rachel Alexandra - who has won seven times this year, twice against males - seemingly has put Zenyatta in the position of playing catch-up. On the track, that never has been a problem. But this is an entirely new and different race.

Zenyatta will try to extend her record to 12 for 12 on Sunday, when she is scheduled to head the field in the Grade 1, $300,000 Clement Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. But what to do after that? In a perfect world, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would meet in the Breeders' Cup, perhaps in the Ladies' Classic, maybe even in a dream showdown against the best males in the world in the Classic. But with Rachel Alexandra having been taken out of consideration for this year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting by her majority owner, Jess Jackson, those associated with Zenyatta find themselves struggling with how to proceed.

"As the year progresses, we'll see what to do," said John Shirreffs, the trainer who has masterfully guided Zenyatta. "Everything is designed to have Zenyatta at her peak for the Breeders' Cup. There are options obviously out there, but with the Breeders' Cup being in California, it seems that the way to give Zenyatta the best chance to win that day is to stay in California and race in California rather than ship and come back to California."

Though based in California, Zenyatta has left the state. Last year, she went to Oaklawn Park and defeated reigning Eclipse Award winner Ginger Punch in the Apple Blossom Handicap, which put her atop her division, a position she has kept for more than a year. And then earlier this year, Zenyatta traveled to Churchill Downs for an expected start on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. That's as close as she's gotten to Rachel Alexandra. It rained on Oaks Day, and Zenyatta was scratched, good intentions having gone for naught.

"I think people have forgotten that we did try to run there this year," Shirreffs said. "It was very frustrating. We would have loved to have run Zenyatta at Churchill Downs the day before the Kentucky Derby. But, unfortunately, it rained and they sealed the track. Being as it was her first time back since the Breeders' Cup, we had to be prudent."

Since returning to California, Zenyatta has knocked off two more wins, both in stakes races she also won in 2008. Except for the late start, her campaign this year has mirrored last year's. There was no consideration given last year to running against males in the Classic. This year, Shirreffs said, all options are on the table.

"Until the Breeders' Cup gets closer, I don't think it's fair to judge the plusses and minuses of running in the Classic," Shirreffs said. "Right now, it's just an option."

Jerry Moss said the Classic is a "possibility."

"This year, she's bigger and stronger," Moss said.

That she is. Zenyatta is about the biggest horse at Del Mar, male or female.

"Over 17 hands, 1,200 pounds," Shirreffs said. "She's a racing machine. She's very special. She has such a long stride. I don't think I've ever seen a horse with that long a stride."

"She just seems to do things with such ease," said Mike Smith, her regular jockey. "It's just incredible when you ask her to quicken."

There has been no talk, Shirreffs said, of racing Zenyatta next year. He is open to racing Zenyatta after the Breeders' Cup, perhaps at Churchill Downs in the fall, if a showdown with Rachel Alexandra can be arranged. But with Rachel Alexandra having had such an aggressive campaign so far, the chances of her racing that deep into the year - especially with plans for her to race next year - are far from certain. The race for Horse of the Year may not be decided on the racetrack.

"Last year, Curlin got special consideration because he came back for another year," Moss said. "I think she should get some reasonable consideration for doing that.

"If Zenyatta wins all her races the rest of the year and retires with a perfect record, that's really something."

It is. It would be enough to make Zenyatta a two-time champion in her division. But would it be enough to make her Horse of the Year?