At Breeders' Cup, Zenyatta needs to show she can deliver on dirt
In a report about Zenyatta on "60 Minutes," correspondent Bob Simon described the mare as "the most splendid creature we've ever seen" and jockey Mike Smith said she "could go down as the greatest horse of all time." Sports Illustrated profiled the undefeated 6-year-old and wrote that "Zenyatta's greatness fairly bursts from the skin beneath her coat." Oprah Winfrey's "O" Magazine put Zenyatta among 20 names on its 2010 Power List of females "changing the world for the better."
Any casual fan would surely conclude from these extravagant descriptions that Zenyatta is a near-certainty to score her 20th straight victory when she concludes her career Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Classic. An animal capable of changing the world can surely win a mere horse race.
Yet serious handicappers view these encomiums with considerable skepticism. If you're a hardheaded gambler and not a sentimentalist, you'll bet against Zenyatta when she faces high-class male rivals such as Quality Road, Blame and Lookin at Lucky at Churchill Downs.
The mare's winning streak is an exceptional achievement, but only one of her 19 victories supports the argument that she ranks among the best thoroughbreds of all time. She is not even the most accomplished female on the Churchill Downs card - a distinction belonging to Goldikova, the French mare who has beaten males in Grade I stakes seven time and will be favored to do so again in the Breeders' Cup Mile. There is usually a significant difference in quality between races limited to females and those open to the entire horse population, and Zenyatta has made 18 of her 19 starts in races limited to her own sex. Her opposition this year has been so weak that she hasn't faced a single Grade I stakes winner.
Zenyatta proved she could beat colts last fall when she unleashed an explosive rally to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and became the first member of her sex to accomplish that feat. Yet the quality of that victory is difficult to assess. It was one of the mare's 17 victories over synthetic surfaces in her home state of California, and synthetic-track races are very different from dirt, often favoring horses with Zenyatta's stretch-running style. Moreover, the high-class horses she defeated at Santa Anita were not synthetic-track specialists as she is.
Now she has to show if she can deliver a powerful performance on dirt - the standard by which great American horses are usually judged. Trainer John Shirreffs said he thinks Zenyatta is at least as good on dirt as she is on synthetics. The mare did win her two starts on dirt, both against fillies at Oaklawn Park, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 104 two years ago and a 95 this spring. Maybe she can run even better - the 11/4-mile distance of the Classic is ideal for her and Shirreffs has been preparing her for this race all year - and she will have to do so. A figure of 104 won't win the Classic.
Of the three horses considered her main rivals, Lookin at Lucky has the shakiest credentials. Though he has looked visually impressive winning all three of his starts since the Kentucky Derby, he has been beating members of a weak 3-year-old crop. He'll be moving into a different league when he faces the 4-year-olds Quality Road and Blame in the Classic.
Quality Road has been a brilliant racehorse for two seasons, and his 12Â¾-length runaway in the Donn Handicap this winter may have been the best single performance by a U.S. racehorse in the last five years. But in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, where he set a moderate pace that should have given a tactical advantage, Blame nevertheless rallied to catch him at the wire. Quality Road came back to win the Woodward Stakes, but without his usual flair. Trainer Todd Pletcher's 3-for-66 Breeders' Cup record doesn't inspire confidence that Quality Road will suddenly return to peak form on Saturday.
When Blame beat Quality Road, scoring his fifth straight victory, he temporarily established himself as the country's top older male, but then was upset by Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The loss may have been excusable - Haynesfield stole off to an insuperable early advantage - and Blame has been training well since. Based on his overall body of work, his win over Quality Road and his proven affinity for the Churchill Downs strip, Blame is the horse to beat in America's richest race.
He is, at least, unless Zenyatta is as good as her legion of ardents fans believe. Most of them think she has nothing left to prove - but she does. To secure her place in history, even after 19 straight wins, she has to prove herself on dirt against top-class males and win the Classic. The odds are against her.