Thursday, May 21, 2009

Zenyatta returns... but it's hardly a campaign.

When Zenyatta was scratched the morning of the Louisville Stakes at Churchill Downs, I felt as if someone had pulled a rug out from under me. I was looking forward to seeing this amazing mare run almost more than seeing the Kentucky Derby.

I've followed her since I first saw her run in the Apple Blossom, her first and only start on dirt, when she walloped the champion Ginger Punch at Oaklawn last spring. Since then, she's become nothing short of a "living legend," to quote Trevor Denman, with untouchable class and a legacy that will live on for generations.

Yet, I wasn't rooting for Zenyatta to win the 2008 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. She was facing my other true love, Curlin.

There's no question to me that Curlin deserved to win his second Horse of the Year title. In 2008, he won the Dubai World Cup by a then-record margin of 7 3/4 lengths, came back to America to win the Stephen Foster, went on to win his second Jockey Club Gold Cup, and when he tried turf for the first time, he suffered the first loss of his 2008 season to a Breeders' Cup Turf winner, Red Rocks. Curlin raced against all who would face him, on two continents, three surfaces, at five different tracks, on fast tracks, and in the slop.

In contrast, Zenyatta dominated in a perfect season, going on to win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic and the Eclipse Award for Champion Older Female. She won on four different tracks, on two surfaces, and beat many talented fillies and mares. Unfortunately, many of these competitors were the same ones, were only on perfect tracks, and she never once faced males.

John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, has been bitter about her loss to Curlin for Horse of the Year ever since, but he certainly has done nothing this year to back up why she deserves another shot at winning the title.

A champion is measured not only by brilliance, but by diversity, overcoming what obstacles are thrown at him or her. When the track came up a bit sloppy on the morning of the Louisville Stakes, Zenyatta had the opportunity to prove her stature by trying a new surface condition for the first time. If she were to continue her complete domination on dirt by cruising in the slop, Zenyatta would confirm her bid for this year's HOTY honors. Shirreffs at one time said he thought she'd be even more of a threat on dirt. But when the time came for Zenyatta to shine against new opposition, against a field she'd never seen before, he pulled her out. He denied her the chance to show us what other talents she may possess. In doing so, I've not only lost respect for him as a trainer, I feel cheated as a fan of this great horse.

Curlin may not have won when he was placed on turf and on synthetics for the first time, but he ran his guts out to try. It's not easy for a horse to transfer from one surface to another, yet it has been said it's probably easier for synthetic horses to adapt to dirt after starting on the fake stuff. If Zenyatta really is better on the dirt than she is on synthetics, she should be given the opportunity to prove so. Running only in perfect conditions is no way for a champion to be made. And I dare say she must be tested to prove her champion status.

A lot is already being said about Zenyatta potentially having a showdown with the amazing 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra this fall. I hope this happens. However, I don't wish it to be on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride, where Zenyatta will have all the advantage. Zenyatta has had enough of an advantage, getting everything pretty much her way. It's time she duke it out, it's time she get roughed around a little. It's time she shows us what she's truly got inside of her.

I think the synthetics will do to Rachel what it did to Curlin, and that's not a level playing field. Obviously, English turf horses will mow over our dirt horses if you place them on synthetics. Synthetics are NOT DIRT. So, if Zenyatta is best on dirt, and Rachel is best on dirt, put two and two together. Race this champion mare and this champion filly where they run best, and do it fair and square; no scratches because of imperfect track conditions, this isn't a game for the faint at heart. This is a game for the iron-willed.

Zenyatta is racing in her second straight Grade II Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park this Saturday. Whoop-de-freaking-do.


  1. Hi! Great blog hope it's ok to comment :0) I just have to say that I agree with you on John scratching her f/ the Distaff. For heavens sakes two seconds after that race the track improved to good...One Caroline (and I'm in no way saying the two are the same) was undefeated at that time yet her trainer did not scratch her! She didn't win but she barely lost either...

    Props to you for this one!

  2. Thanks, Christy! Glad you feel the same way. I think Sherriffs is getting paranoid of breaking Zenyatta's racing streak, but with Saturday's race against Life Is Sweet, she may be facing a worthy opponent.

    Please feel free to comment however much you like. :)

  3. Which race would you have selected for Zenyatta? The Ogden Phipps and Fleur de Lis aren't until June. The Allaire DuPont Preakness day could have worked, but it's a G2 across the country worth only $150k.

    The Milady in Zenyatta's backyard makes sense to start the year after missing a scheduled start. Believe me, the Mosses and Shirreffs aren't looking to win the same races they won last year.

    As for Rachel Alexandra on synthetic, she's already won on Polytrack.

  4. Now that Zenyatta has had her return race (and a successful one at that) I wish they'd not run Rachel in The Belmont and set something up between the two of them. What the heck I guess throw in a field while their at it IF they can find one lol!

    I didn't know R.A. had run on Poly...since she has (and since Zenyatta has been successful on dirt) then it'd be interesting to see what track a race like this would come to fruition on!

    Talk about drawing interest in horse racing again...the Undefeated Zenyatta against the TomGirl ha ha!

    PS-LOVE your blog and thx for sharing!!

  5. Eddie D.- Regardless of what other people are saying, I do believe Zenyatta needs to face male competition. This is a variable you just can't discount when it comes to Horse of the Year, and so far, Rachel has got her beaten there. How about the Pacific Classic? Or actually ship her outside of California for something noteworthy like the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Stephen Foster? There's no reason they should keep her at home facing the same fillies who can't touch her. How will we know how good she is until she faces the best the males have to offer? Let her race against Einstein; Einstein is certainly the most versatile champ out there as it stands. The options are really limitless when you think about it. And when Music Note and Cocoa Beach finally return to the track, let them face her again. Zenyatta is in a whole different stratosphere than most horses, and competition needs to be sought for her. If that means traveling cross-country, or facing males for the first time, so be it. Zenyatta is so good, these will hardly be obstacles for her. Even so, she still needs to do it to defend her title and be in contention with Rachel.

  6. She's the Champ, come and get her. I'll take her over Rachel anyday. Especially at equal weights. Nothing to prove from the Zenyatta camp; just taking care of their horse. Things happen when horses ship. No reason to risk it, just to appease some racing blowhards. Come and get her...

  7. "Things happen when horses ship."

    That has to be one of the best excuses to never ship horses anywhere for any reason. If their safety and/or well-being are in jeopardy when they ship, then horses should just stay on the farm where they are foaled. Why even have the sport in that case?

    Champions in this sport must constantly prove themselves due to such short careers. Zenyatta did NOT face the best competition last year. Though it is not fair to expect a horse to be shipped to every challenger, it should be expected that the camp behind Zenyatta make some sort of effort to challenge her.

    Also, since Rachel Alexandra has beaten both males and females, it could be argued that SHE is the champ and that Zenyatta must show her depth by stepping into more competition.