Zenyatta’s Final Test Is Her Toughest
America’s Sweetheart had better save her best for last.
Zenyatta will need it.
As much as everyone wants the fairy tale to have a perfect ending in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, as much as her fans want her to go out a perfect 20-for-20 in her career, the truth is this will be, by far, her toughest challenge yet.
The country’s most popular thoroughbred will be facing a star-studded field unlike any she has seen up to now. Yes, she put on a great show a year ago when her patented stretch run beat the boys in this same race at Santa Anita.
But there is one major difference. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup field was not a strong one. Zenyatta ran down Gio Ponti, a nice stakes horse who is better on grass, to win the big prize.
This time, the field is two or three times stronger. It includes two heavyweight older horses in Blame and Quality Road and the impressive 3-year-old of the year in Lookin At Lucky. Quality Road is trained by Todd Pletcher, the No. 1 man in the sport at the moment, and Lookin At Lucky’s trainer is Bob Baffert, who happens to know something about winning big races.
Then there is Espoir City, a Japanese import a lot of horsemen seem to like, and Haynesfield, a 12-1 shot who only beat Blame in his last start.
So you get the idea. For Zenyatta, this is like moving up from the Emerald Bowl to the BCS title game.
The distinguished, undefeated female has had California fans swooning at her every performance this past year. But in reality, she hasn’t beaten a winner of a Grade I race the whole time. Most of her races have been on synthetic tracks and this one will be on dirt. And in Saturday’s Classic, there are a half dozen or so starters who have put up better speed numbers than her in the past 12 months.
So what’s it all mean? Well, nothing if Zenyatta runs the way she always does, which is just good enough to win. Up to now, the competition hasn’t mattered. But is that because it wasn’t very good much of the time? Or that she’s so talented the level of competition is moot?
This is when we find out. You have to give Jerry Moss and his wife, the owners of this horse, and trainer John Shirreffs a lot of credit. They could have retired her undefeated after last year’s Breeders’ Cup, and her perfect legacy would have been preserved for all time.
But they love watching her compete so much, they couldn’t resist. Now the gamble they’ve taken is huge. If she loses on Saturday, she’ll still be remembered as a great horse, but she likely wouldn’t even be 2010’s Horse of the Year.
Considering she was the victim of Eastern bias a year ago, when Rachel Alexandra was voted the honor despite running in less difficult races, that would mean Zenyatta would close out her career without ever being named Horse of the Year.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, maybe we won’t have to worry about it.
Maybe this beautiful, charismatic female will do what everyone — OK, almost everyone — in the sport is hoping she will do. Maybe she’ll unleash one more jawdropping run through the stretch, overtake this brilliant field and put the deserving exclamation mark on her career.
The lady certainly will have a lot of people cheering for her on Saturday.
Let’s face it, it’s hard to root against perfection.
PICKS OF THE WEEK — Our record stands at .500 now, and that’s about where it belongs. Picking against the spread is such an adventure. Take last week. Arizona’s kicker misses a PAT, and instead of winning by nine, it wins by eight, giving me a tie, or push, instead of a victory in the UCLA game. That’s OK, at least the Wildcats made it interesting, which is more than I could say for the punchless Jets versus the Packers. Oh, well, we will continue taking our best shots.
ILLINOIS (plus three) AT MICHIGAN — The Illini are coming off two blowout victories, and earlier they won at Penn State and pushed Ohio State to the limit. Michigan, meanwhile, after a fast start, has lost three in a row and its defense has been getting flattened. Now the NCAA has hit the Wolverines with another sanction. I always like to get points in a game I think a team can win straight up.
STEELERS (minus four) AT BENGALS — Yes, Pittsburgh lost last week, but everybody loses games in the NFL. On Monday night, you have to think Dick LeBeau’s defense will be revved up and ready to go after a Cincy team that seems to have forgotten how to win.
LAST WEEK’S RECORD: 0-1-1 OVERALL RECORD: 7-7-2
— STEVE BISHEFF