Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Zenyatta's five-race 2009 homestand

Trainer John Shirreffs' announcement Monday that champion mare Zenyatta will be staying home in 2009, thank you, has caused a bit of a stir among those who hoped to see the 5-year-old Street Cry daughter really strut her stuff nationwide, and maybe against the boys, this summer.

It certainly has the cinch of our blogosphere friend Ghostsnapper's saddle a notch too tight.

I'm not inclined to solely blame the Zenyatta camp, namely Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss, because part of the fault lies with the folks whose decision 11 months ago made such a 2009 campaign for Zenyatta too attractive to pass up; that's the Breeders' Cup.

For the first time since the series' inception in 1984, North American racing's biggest, richest weekend is being hosted by the same track -- Santa Anita -- in consecutive years. It means that to defend both her title as top older racemare and her perfect record, presently 10-for-10 after a coasting win in the Milady Handicap, Zenyatta never has to leave her home base of southern California. And that means she gets to stay on synthetic surfaces all summer, where she's a proven monster.

If the Breeders' Cup were planned for anywhere outside of California, it almost certainly would not be staged over a synthetic main track. And that could prompt Shirreffs to take Zenyatta on the road a time or two, in order to keep her familiar with a traditional dirt surface and perhaps to get a race over the specific strip where the 2009 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic would be run.

Says Shirreffs, "With the Breeders' Cup out here, what's the point (of traveling)?"

"When it gets closer to (Breeders' Cup) time," says Shirreffs in May, of the late-October festival, "you don't want to ship around too much. Saratoga is a long way."

To be sure, Shirreffs and Zenyatta's connections are showing no inclination to really test their mare this year. Not only is Shirreffs begging off a trip to America's racing mecca, Saratoga, for a possible date in a Grade 1 race like the Go For Wand at 9 furlongs early in August or the 10-furlong Personal Ensign in the month's waning days. He's also on record as opting out of letting her face Grade 1 males -- even at home in California. And he isn't particularly interested merely in asking Zenyatta if she can stretch her legs for an extra furlong.

"The (Hollywood) Gold Cup is a mile and a quarter," Shirreffs said. "She's never run that far. It would be an ambitious spot and against the boys? Let's make it even harder."

So in a move similar to, say, the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers unilaterally deciding they'll be playing all 16 regular-season games this year at home in Heinz Field, Team Zenyatta will commute to work all year in southern California. In horse racing, they have that right.

And it isn't like Zenyatta won't be running in major races, for big money. The 9-furlong, Grade 1 Vanity Handicap and its $300,000 purse await June 27 at Hollywood Park. A fairly short van ride to Del Mar on Aug. 9 would let Zenyatta punch her timecard in the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch, then it's back to Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet for the G1 Lady's Secret Stakes as a prep for the Breeders' Cup.

Now for what this really means: If Rachel Alexandra and her connections want a piece of Zenyatta -- and I suspect they do -- they'll have to come and get her. And that, in my mind, is by design. Zenyatta will be at home, both in her stable arrangements and on the SoCal synthetics. Rachel has won over the fake dirt, but she's made just one of her 10 starts on the stuff, so a matchup at Del Mar or during the Oak Tree meet has to give Zenyatta the home field advantage in every way.

I think Ghostsnapper is right -- this schedule set out by Shirreffs likely sinks any chance Zenyatta had of being horse of the year instead of just champion handicap mare. Voters will want to see her tested, not protected.

Curlin won the title last year (over a perfect Zenyatta) because his connections -- namely Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, also primary owner of Rachel Alexandra -- weren't scared of anybody, and weren't ashamed of losing in the name of good sport. Curlin crushed 'em in the Dubai World Cup. In a test to see if he might actually try France's storied Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Curlin tried turf in the G1 Man O'War, and it took a Breeders' Cup champion in Red Rocks to beat him. Even his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic -- over synthetic at Santa Anita -- was forgiven because of the surface, perhaps, and everything the horse had gone through to get there; he was rewarded for the competitiveness and resolve he'd shown throughout a rigorous, global 4-year-old campaign.

Precisely because Jackson and Stonestreet own Rachel Alexandra, I still think a clash of the distaff titans will happen this summer. Rachel has no perfect record to protect, having lost three times at 2 (before she met Calvin Borel), and Jackson would rather see his filly challenged (witness her Preakness entry), even if she fails, than to see her coast against overmatched competition.

I could be wrong. Trainer Steve Asmussen might plan a conservative 3-year-old campaign for Rachel from now until Breeders' Cup weekend, as well. Grade 1 races against her own gender and age await in Belmont's Mother Goose (9f, June 27) and Coaching Club American Oaks (10f, July 25), and the 10-furlong Alabama at Saratoga on Aug. 22.

She could try G1 older mares (absent Zenyatta) in Saratoga's Go For Wand and Personal Ensign, or Belmont's Ruffian and Beldame. Or she might face colts (and perhaps gelded Derby champ Mine That Bird) again in a race like the Travers. But she doesn't have to in order to win nice races, good money, and additional respect, especially with that Preakness triumph already in her pocket -- a Preakness triumph that, in light of the Zenyatta camp's decision to play it conservative, is looking even more impressive.

Meanwhile, let's hope the Breeders' Cup never again chooses to hold its show at the same venue two years in a row. Not only does that deprive fans of lesser means in other parts of the country of a more affordable opportunity to attend (at a closer venue), but -- especially with California's universal adoption of synthetic surfaces at all major tracks -- it's made the career of Zenyatta an almost exclusively Southern California phenomenon, with only one lifetime start anywhere else. (The 2008 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.)

I'll bet the connections of Lava Man wish the Breeders' Cup would have pulled this stunt during his heyday of unquestioned SoCal dominance.

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