As of Wednesday afternoon, it is still unclear if the undefeated and champion older mare Zenyatta will run in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. 1) at Del Mar Saturday, but she has at least been entered. And while her potential last appearance before a California audience remains a mystery, it is clear that should she run, her competition on the track may not be her biggest hurdle. In fact, it may the track itself.
Despite passing the entry box in the Clement L. Hirsch however, it is still unclear whether Zenyatta will start in the 1-1/16th race on Del Mar’s Polytrack synthetic surface. According to Steve Andersen’s report in Daily Racing Form Tuesday, trainer John Shirreffs said a final decision will be made after the Zenyatta trains over the Del Mar track Thursday and Friday.
The Del Mar surface has again come under criticism from Southern California trainers for inconsistencies in the track and was closed for training for a day during the opening week of the seasons for repairs. “We won’t know until Thursday or Friday what we’ll do [in the Hirsch],” Shirreffs told Andersen at Del Mar. “Everything is different all the time,” he said referring to the surface.
After Zenyatta went to the track for the first time Wednesday morning, Shirreffs seemed very pleased, but would not yet commit to starting Zenyatta Saturday. In her only start at Del Mar last year, Zenyatta won the Hirsch but provided a much closer finish than anyone expected. As the heavy 1-5 favorite, she needed a furious late rally to catch Anabaa’s Creation to win by just a head at the wire.
Should Zenyatta go in the Hirsch, she will be trying to win the race for the third consecutive year – something she achieved earlier this season in winning the grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park for the third straight time. While the Hirsch was a grade 2 in 2008, I could only find one horse, the great gelding Forego, who has won two separate North American grade 1 races in three consecutive years. Forego won the 1974-76 Brooklyn Handicaps and upped the ante considerably by winning the Woodward stakes four consecutive years from 1974-77.
Worth mentioning is that Kelso won the Jockey Club Gold Cup five consecutive years from 1960-64 and three straight Woodward Stakes from 1961-63. However, that was before the American Graded Stakes Committee began grading races in 1972.
More historically, Zenyatta will be trying to add to her undefeated 17-for-17 record. Unfortunately for the Hirsch, the track and history are Zenyatta’s biggest challengers. Expected to offer the most competition is perhaps Rinterval, an Irish-bred invader from Chicago who just finished a very nice second to Informed Decision in the grade 3 Chicago Handicap at Arlington Park July 4. There are no grade 1 stakes winners in the Hirsch although Made For Magic won the grade 2 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park in May and Dance to My Tune was just more than a length behind Zenyatta in the grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita in March.
It is unclear if Shirreffs is considering Zenyatta for the grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga August 29 against Rachel Alexandra. Shirreffs has mentioned shipping to New York for perhaps the $350,000 Beldame Oct. 2 following the Hirsch, but has also discussed staying in California for an additional start before the Breeders’ Cup in November.