Valiant loss puts Zenyatta's prowess in perspective

Zenyatta, with jockey Mike Smith, left, heads to a photo finish with Blame and jockey Garrett Gomez in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Blame won by a nose, saddling Zenyatta with the first loss of her career.
Zenyatta, with jockey Mike Smith, left, heads to a photo finish with Blame and jockey Garrett Gomez in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Blame won by a nose, saddling Zenyatta with the first loss of her career. (David J. Phillip/associated Press)
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By Andrew Beyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 12:26 AM

The nationwide television audience watching "Zenyatta: A Quest for Perfection" and the 72,739 people cheering for the mare at Churchill Downs surely felt deflated when she lost to Blame in the Breeders' Cup Classic. They shouldn't have despaired. Zenyatta was more ennobled by this defeat than by almost anything she did during the 19-race winning streak she brought into Saturday's race.

Although she regularly won races with electrifying rallies in the stretch, none was so impressive as her charge from a hopeless position with a half mile to run-dead last and 15 lengths behind the leaders-that brought her into a photo finish with Blame.

Because the finish was so close, many fans have second-guessed jockey Mike Smith for letting the mare drop too far behind in the early stages of the race. Smith blamed himself, too, saying, "I feel like I let her down. I left her too much to do. I had to put the brakes on at the quarter pole. . . . I just know she was the best horse in the race."

Smith was being too hard on himself. In fact, he secured for Zenyatta a trip as smooth as a horse can reasonably expect when coming from last place in a 12-horse field. The mare saved ground around most of the turn, eased to the outside for clear running room, and never had her momentum broken. She was so far behind not because of any tactical error by Smith but because of the way the Classic developed. It underscored the fundamental differences between races on dirt and the synthetic tracks where Zenyatta had posted 17 of her victories.

Because synthetic-track races are usually won with late acceleration, not with early speed, jockeys ride accordingly and the pace of these races is typically slow. Though Zenyatta usually started in last place, she could easily cruise into striking distance of the slow-moving leaders before unleashing her big kick in the stretch.

The Classic was entirely different. The field was populated by high-quality horses with the speed of sprinters, such as Quality Road and Haynesfield, and they were running in high gear as soon as the gate opened. Zenyatta had never encountered a scenario like this. According to Randy Moss, who created the Moss Pace Figures for the Daily Racing Form, Zenyatta was running as fast in the early stages of the Classic as in any of her races over the last two years. Yet she was out of contact with the rest of the field.

It is difficult to win this way on dirt. Even confirmed stretch-runners need enough speed to secure a decent tactical position. Blame has never been first, second or third in the early stages of any race, but he is always within striking distance, and he was quick enough to get a five-length jump on Zenyatta around the final turn. With a quarter-mile to go, it appeared impossible that the mare could gain significant ground on a strong finisher like Blame, yet she almost made up all five lengths with a phenomenal rally through the stretch.

This wasn't the feel-good ending that most people wanted, but it was as thrilling as any race in years and a fitting climax to a day of great competition. If viewers of the ESPN/ABC telecast didn't get juiced up about horse racing Saturday, there's no hope for the sport.

Europe's greatest mare, Goldikova, did what Zenyatta barely failed to do: win a Breeders' Cup race for the third straight year. She overpowered her rivals in the Mile (including the defending U. S. turf champion, Gio Ponti) to score her eighth career victory against males in Grade I company. Goldikova's legion of European fans can justifiably hail her as the best horse in the world.

The undefeated 2-year-old colt Uncle Mo delivered a powerhouse performance to win the Juvenile and stamp himself as the early favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby. He beat Boys at Tosconova by 4 ¼ lengths and everybody else by at least 10, in one of the fastest runnings of this race ever. Uncle Mo's Beyer Speed Figure of 108 equaled the second-best in the history of the race. He's a potential superstar.

But Zenyatta's performance overshadowed everything else that happened at Churchill Downs, and people in the sport will be talking for a long time about the Classic and about the mare's place in history.

Before Saturday, Zenyatta's admirers argued that she was one of the all-time great racing talents of either sex. The Classic brought her abilities into perspective. She's as good as Blame, and few people would rank Blame among the immortals of the turf. His victory Saturday doesn't rank among the best Breeders' Cup performances. (The Beyer Speed Figure of 111 earned by both the winner and Zenyatta was below average for the Classic and considerably slower than great winners like Sunday Silence and Ghostzapper.)

However, Zenyatta's fans can make a reasonable claim that she should be considered the greatest U.S. filly or mare of all time. Any argument on the subject will be complicated by the fact that Zenyatta's one-dimensional stretch-running style would put her at a tactical disadvantage on the dirt in a hypothetical matchup against other great fillies such as Ruffian and Rachel Alexandra. But Zenyatta's historic winning streak and her two performances in the Classic constitute a formidable body of work, and nobody ought to hold her one defeat against her.


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