Zenyatta wins Breeders'

By Andrew Beyer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 8, 2009

ARCADIA, CALIF. -- The American racing world now has two ruling queens.

After Rachel Alexandra had dominated the sport through the spring and summer, beating males three times, Zenyatta gave a performance Saturday that will put her name in the history books, too. Rallying from last place, the 5-year-old mare won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita and brought her career record to a perfect 14 for 14.

Because this was almost certainly the last race of Zenyatta's career, her victory will prompt a never-to-be-resolved debate about whether she or Rachel Alexandra was the better racehorse. It will stir a debate about which of them deserves to be 2009's horse of the year, although Rachel Alexandra is considered the likely winner.

But there will be near-unanimous agreement that the two of them rank among the greatest fillies of all time, as well as regret that they never faced each other in competition. Rachel Alexandra skipped the Classic because owner Jess Jackson didn't want to race her on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface.

Zenyatta had never before faced a challenge like this one; her trainer John Shireffs stuck to a conservative course and was reluctant to enter her against males. Zenyatta couldn't ensure her place in history by beating overmatched filly competition. Her performance Saturday was the one that defined her greatness.

She ran the way Saturday that she always runs: coming from far, far behind and finishing with a powerful kick. After she broke a bit awkwardly, her jockey Mike Smith found himself in a familiar position and said, "I just kept looking way in front of me." Smith has typically ridden Zenyatta by making a big, wide move on the turn, but Saturday he was near the rail as he approached the turn and considered his options. At one moment, he said: "It was all stacked up in front of me. And then it was like parting of the seas."

Zenyatta moved inside many of her rivals, and advanced to mid-pack when Smith angled wide and asked her to move in earnest.

In mid-stretch she still had five horses in front of her, including strong finishers such as Gio Ponti and the Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird. But Zenyatta blew past these formidable rivals with ease and was one length ahead of Gio Ponti at the wire. She finished the 1 1/4 miles in 2 minutes 0.62 seconds.

The performance underscored Zenyatta's exceptional ability on synthetic surfaces: She scored 13 of her 14 victories on the synthetic tracks in her home state of California, while venturing only once to compete on dirt. That will surely be one of the many factors in the horse-of-the-year debate, since Rachel Alexandra excelled on traditional dirt tracks.

Shireffs argued that the Breeders' Cup "is the championship series of racing," and that it ought to determine the year-end champions regardless of the surface. Zenyatta's victory overshadowed everything else that happened in the two days of racing here, and might help Americans forget how badly their horses were outshone by Europeans.

The invaders won four of the eight stakes on Saturday's program. The Europeans' strong showing was no surprise. After the foreign horses enjoyed great success last year making the transition from grass to Santa Anita's synthetic surface, a large contingent came to contest stakes that U.S. horses dominated when they were run on the dirt. Moreover, the foreign contingent was stronger than usual in its traditional area of strength -- turf racing -- while the United States' was sub-par. Two of their wins were particularly notable:

The French filly Goldikova gave one of the most impressive performances of the day when she came from next-to-last place and finished powerfully to win the Mile, covering the distance in a swift 1:32.26 over the Santa Anita turf course.

While much of the pre-Breeders' Cup hype had focused on Zenyatta's running against males for the first and only time in her life, such an undertaking was routine for Goldikova. She had won this event last year against male competition, and she had twice won Grade I stakes against males in France. Saturday, she gave Freddie Head a unique distinction: He won back-to-back runnings of the Mile as a trainer after doing the same thing as the jockey of Miesque in 1987-88.

Conduit followed Goldikova in scoring back-to-back Cup victories as he rallied to win the $3 million Turf, running 1 1/2 miles in 2:23.75. This race was at least a moral victory for the United States because Presious Passion ran a phenomenal race in defeat. He ran the first half-mile in an apparently suicidal 45.14 as he sprinted to a huge lead, but when Conduit drew abreast, he fought back tenaciously before losing by half a length.

The other European winners were Pounced, in Juvenile Turf, and Vale of York, who scored a 30-to-1 upset by prevailing in a four-horse photo finish in the Juvenile. Traditionally, the Juvenile is the race that determines the early favorite for the next year's Kentucky Derby, but Vale of York's success on a synthetic track may not necessarily be relevant to his chances on Churchill Downs' dirt. This fact will surely not deter his owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktum of Dubai, who hungers to win his first Derby.

The U.S.-based winners on the card were California Flag in the Turf Sprint; 25-to-1 Dancing in Silks in the Sprint; and 21-to-1 Furthest Land in the Dirt Mile.

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