08/05/2010 3:50PM

Zenyatta poised for three-peat in Hirsch

Benoit & Associates
Zenyatta gallops over Del Mar's Polytrack surface Thursday with Steve Willard aboard.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The only perception of a blemish on Zenyatta’s unbeaten record is the 2009 Clement Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar, a race she won by a head.

The performance has been on trainer John Shirreffs’s mind for months, in advance of Zenyatta’s scheduled appearance in the same race on Saturday, where she will attempt to win her 18th race.

The question centers on whether Zenyatta can handle Del Mar’s Polytrack synthetic surface as well as the Cushion Track synthetic surface at Hollywood Park, the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, or the dirt at Oaklawn Park, the sites of her three previous Grade 1 wins this year.

Shirreffs has been so cautious that as of Thursday morning he had yet to fully commit Zenyatta to a start in the $300,000 Hirsch.

“We’re in countdown [mode], if things go well,” he said.

The trainer was content on Wednesday and Thursday, the two days Zenyatta galloped at Del Mar since arriving early Wednesday from Shirreffs’s year-round base at Hollywood Park. Still, Shirreffs said training over the surface is different from a race.

“You can gallop around here a 100 times and it will be the same,” Shirreffs said. “It’s a matter of how she’ll handle it at racing speed. No one can predict that until it happens.”

The Grade 1 Hirsch will be Zenyatta’s first start at 1 1/16 miles since the Grade 1 Lady’s Secret Stakes at Santa Anita last October. Since then, she has raced over 1 1/8 and 1/4 miles, including an historic win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November, becoming the first female to win that race.

In 2008, Zenyatta won the Hirsch by a length. Last year, she closed from last in a field of seven to win, making up 13 lengths before catching the outside Anabaa’s Creation. Mike Smith was aboard for those wins and has the mount on Saturday.

“It was desperate in margin, it was just a [head],” Smith said of the 2009 Hirsch. “It wasn’t desperate in as far as being all out. She was hitting her best stride at the wire. She was just hitting another gear. I felt pretty confident that she’d get there.”

Last year, Smith thought Zenyatta’s win in the Hirsch, her third of 2009, propelled the mare to better form for the rest of the season. This year, he said her most recent start, a hard-fought half-length win over St. Trinians in the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 13, may have the same effect.

Shirreffs agrees with that theory, and said the Vanity Handicap did not take a negative toll on Zenyatta.

“She had to be challenged, and St. Trinians challenged her,” Shirreffs said. “It was a good race. The race didn’t set her back.”

The Hirsch Stakes could be Zenyatta’s final start in California. The Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park in October is being considered as a prep to the BC Classic at Churchill Downs in November, which will be her final start before retirement.

“Wouldn’t it be something if we could finish the year undefeated?” Smith said. “To be undefeated and be a filly, I know the ability is there. Sometimes you wonder are we good enough? That’s not a question anymore.”

Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta is part of a field of six in the Hirsch, which drew two other 2010 stakes winners – Made for Magic, the winner of the Grade 2 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park in May; and Rinterval, who won the minor Wintergreen Stakes at Turfway Park in March.

Rinterval, who is expected to set the pace, is the lone shipper in the field. Trainer Eric Reed is banking on Rinterval’s success on Polytrack surfaces at Arlington Park and Turfway Park to help his starter’s chances.

“We’re looking forward to taking on the champ and being in the same race with her,” he said. “Maybe we’ll like it more than she will.”

The only starter to have faced Zenyatta this year is Dance to My Tune, who was second at 51-1 in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita in March, Zenyatta’s first start of the year. Dance to My Tune led by two lengths with a furlong remaining in that race, but was beaten 1 1/4 lengths. The performance has not left trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confident of a reversal.

“Anyone who would predict that is not right,” Hollendorfer said. “We want to try to win. We’ll look at the speed and look for a strategy for the race. Everyone knows how Zenyatta runs. To me, she’s the most impressive horse I’ve seen in a long time.”