The Brock Talk

Friday, October 29, 2010

Zenyatta's Road to Perfection Has Many Obstacles, From Ghosts Past and Present

Without doubt, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) has given thoroughbred racing some legendary races in the previous 26 runnings. Wild Again got it all started in the wild inaugural Classic over Slew o’ Gold and a Bo Jackson-like Gate Dancer in 1984, while three years later Ferdinand carried jockey Bill Shoemaker and trainer Charlie Whittingham from the dawn of their respective careers back to the heights in the then new age of the championship event. Whittingham would return with Sunday Silence in 1989 when he defeated Easy Goer in the rematch of the Triple Crown combatants. Cigar won the memorable Classic at Belmont Park and Tiznow began the millennium with the only Classic repeat, winning in 2000-’01.

Last year Zenyatta wrote herself into the record books by becoming the first distaffer to win the Classic, but just how much more significant will a successful defense of her title will be, should she hit the wire first Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs?

First, it should be noted that her hurdles appear to be a few notches higher in 2010 than last year in the Classic despite the incredible extension of her undefeated winning streak to 19 races. This year Zenyatta will have to leave Southern California and travel more than 2,000 miles from Los Angeles to Louisville and run on a surface on which she has never competed. Zenyatta has twice won impressively on natural dirt, but both victories came in the grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Interestingly she won both of those races by an uncharacteristic 4-1/2 lengths, the two longest winning margins of her career. So natural dirt does not appear too much of a challenge. “Appear” being the operative word there.

It is also apparent that the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic field will bring much more accomplished than her foes last year at Santa Anita.

Homefield advantage and much of the wagering support will go to Blame, winner of the grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June and more recently the grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Quality Road will arrive at Churchill Downs this year as the chiseled 4-year-old veteran winner of three grade 1 victories and not the rebellious slayer of the “big green monster” in last year’s Classic who eventually had to succumb to being scratched before the race after his failed attempt to destroy the starting gate and eat the Santa Anita assistant starters. Japan sends over their best older dirt horse in Espoir City and the sophomore crop is well represented by Preakness Stakes and Izod Haskell Invitational Looking at Lucky. And Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) winner Haynesfield and RSVP’d as well.

Regardless of the repeat angle, a victory in the 2010 Classic would seem to be more impressive than even her thrilling victory last year at Santa Anita over 2009 Champion Older Male Gio Ponti.

The question then begs of the historical significance of a distaffer winning a major grade 1 race over older males over the classic distance of 10 furlongs (1-1/4 miles).

If the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the most prestigious race in North America for older horses, then the Jockey Club Gold Cup is the race that it passed for the honor. Won by some of the greats of game including Man o’ War, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Forego, Kelso, Buckpasser, Affirmed, John Henry, Cigar and Curlin, the Jockey Club Gold Cup remains one of the great late season tests in the older horse ranks. Since the race was established in 1919, only seven horses have won the race twice, one of which was the great mare Shuvee, who won in 1970 and 1971. It should be noted that Shuvee won her Gold Cups when the race was run at 2 miles and the 1971 victory was the final race of her career.

On the West Coast, prestige in the older horse ranks begins with the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. 1) run each year in March. Run since 1935, the Santa Anita Handicap was the first $100,000 race in North America and has been won by the likes of Seabiscuit, Round Table, No Double, Ack Ack, John Henry, Affirmed, Alysheba and Tiznow. Jockey Bill Shoemaker won the “Big Cap” 11 times, trainer Charlie Whittingham won it eight times. But no filly or mare has won the Santa Anita Handicap in 76 editions.

The grade 1 Woodward Handicap, run each year since 1954 in New York, has once been won by a female - last year when Rachel Alexandra took the race during her brilliant Horse of the Year campaign.

The grade 1 Hollywood Gold has had three female winners including Happy Tissue in 1944, Two Lea in 1952 and Princessnesian in 1968. But again, that race has been run each year since 1938, so three wins since Walt Disney released the motion picture Snow White is less than a 1-for-20 pace.

The grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga has been run since 1928 and is perhaps most famous for Onion’s defeat of Secretariat in 1973. But the Whitney also been won by legends such as Discovery (three times from 1934-’36), War Admiral (‘38), Kelso (‘61,’63,’65), Dr. Fager (’68), Alydar (’78) and Easy Goer (’89). But the Whitney has also produced six female winners including the first two winners Black Maria in 1928 and Bateau in 1929. Other distaff winners were Esposa (‘37),Gallorette (‘48), Lady's Secret (‘86), and Personal Ensign (‘88).

So going into the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic it is sure that Zenyatta will have many doubters. There will be many who have never believed because of her penchant to stay in Southern California for most of her career, venturing out only twice to run in Arkansas. There are those that chide the quality of her competition during the streak and that she never traveled east to take on Rachel Alexandra.

But the historical significance of defending her title in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, should dispel many of those uncertainties.

2 comments:

katewilt said...

C'mon Brock...Zenyatta deserves every accolade. She has been beautifully and strategically campaigned and her presence is a tribute to the sport of horse-racing.
If she crosses the finish line in front...everybody wins.And I mean not only all owners and breeders yet bartenders, track employees,new casual fans and us die-hards. She will prove the fact that a living athlete on hooves is worth more for excitement than a car race!

katewilt said...

C'mon Brock...Zenyatta deserves every accolade. She has been beautifully and strategically campaigned and her presence is a tribute to the sport of horse-racing.
If she crosses the finish line in front...everybody wins.And I mean not only all owners and breeders yet bartenders, track employees,new casual fans and us die-hards. She will prove the fact that a living athlete on hooves is worth more for excitement than a car race!