Friday, November 6, 2009

Zenyatta: Root for, but bet against in Classic?

Less than 36 hours from now, we'll have no more questions about one of the greatest race mares of the last 20 years.

Zenyatta -- champion older female in 2008 and an unbeaten 13-for-13 against females -- has been entered in the Breeders' Cup Classic against the opposite gender.

It isn't just the step-up to facing males that is a question mark for the 5-year-old Street Cry mare. Zenyatta also never has raced the 10-furlong distance of the Classic.

Both of those unknowns -- plus her being favored on the morning line at 5/2 and, I believe, not likely to drift a lot higher -- lead me to figure that Zenyatta is a bet-against in this race.

After all, the talented mare has not been quite as dominating against her own gender in four races of 2009 (best Equibase speed figure a 116, six points below her career high). And now she tackles a field of 12 boys and men with their own distinguished list of accomplishments.

Eight of Zenyatta's male Classic opponents have won at 10 furlongs, a total of 12 times. Most notable are Gio Ponti (3-for-4 lifetime at the distance) and Summer Bird (2-for-3).

Three of the horses have victories over Santa Anita's all-weather strip, paced by Colonel John, who has won half of his six lifetime starts on that track and just missed a Grade 1 victory by a neck in the Goodwood there on Oct. 10.

Zenyatta is a California-circuit all-weather-track specialist, but despite a field peppered with East Coast-shippers, foreign invaders and turf horses hoping for crossover success, half of her opponents (including Gio Ponti) do have synthetic track victories to their credit.

And while the older males will carry 126 pounds and the mare does get a weight break for gender (123 pounds), the impost on the several talented 3-year-old colts and geldings in the group is even lower, at 122.

This isn't to say that Zenyatta has no strengths. She isn't favored without cause.

Beyond her unblemished lifetime mark, she is 4-for-4 over the track at Santa Anita, has the highest career all-weather speed figure per Equibase (122), and a jockey in Mike Smith who both knows her and knows Santa Anita (51 percent W-P-S during the meeting, third-best in the field among riders).

There's every reason to believe that a Street Cry mare out of a dam by Kris S. should be able to get 10 furlongs.

And she has been handled masterfully, but carefully, by trainer John Shirreffs, whom I doubt would cast her in this role if he didn't think she could handle it. ... I particularly like that Shirreffs has worked her at 6 furlongs four times in a row prepping for the added distance; she's the only horse in the field to have worked 6f more than once in the past few months and of the others, only two have drilled longer than 5f at all.

So if Zenyatta has all that going for her and is still a bet-against, for whom would I wager? Which one of these dozen males is going to beat her?

It's a tough call, but I'm leaning toward the 7-year-old veteran, Einstein, and I love the morning-line odds of 12/1.

Einstein is a battle-hardened competitor with G1 wins on both turf and synthetic. The Helen Pitts trainee is the only other horse in the field with a 120 or higher Equibase speed figure on an all-weather track, and he earned that 120 in winning the Santa Anita Handicap in March -- going this distance, over this track.

He's fallen off the radar a bit, but with only a bit of better racing luck, he wouldn't have.

Were it not for a trip in which, per the charts, he "bobbled," was checked, and was bumped, perhaps Einstein wins the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 13 to become only the second horse (the other being Lava Man) to have G1 wins on all three racing surfaces. Instead, he loses by a length to Macho Again and by a nose to Asiatic Boy (neither in this Classic field), finishing third.

Coming off a poor effort in the Arlington Million on grass (won by Gio Ponti with Einstein fifth beaten 8 1/2 lengths), Einstein came back to miss by only a neck to Richard's Kid (also in the B.C. Classic field) in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, another G1 on synthetic.

Pitts has Einstein working well. An Oct. 11 four-furlong move at Churchill was done in a less-than-scintillating 49 seconds, but the times were slow that day and he was still fifth of 58 at the distance. Same story on Oct. 18 when a 1:01 for 5f was still second of 60. And, he's since followed up with a bullet 59.8 for 5f (best of 54 at CD on Oct. 25), plus a Santa Anita work of 47.80 for 4f (6 of 45).

I think Einstein could be sitting on a big race, and that could make him the man to take down Zenyatta.

Others certainly have a chance.

Irishman Rip Van Winkle is quite talented, with several losses to certain European champ Sea the Stars, but how will the 3-year-old Euro turf horse handle older males and females, a U.S. synthetic track, and the ship all the way to California?

Colonel John can win at SA (3-for-6) and win at 10f (1-for-4). Richard's Kid is coming in off a G1 all-weather win at this distance two starts back and a career-high Equibase figure in the Goodwood last out. Gio Ponti relishes 10f but his synthetic speed figures are a notch below his brilliance on grass. Summer Bird, Quality Road and Mine That Bird all are talented, G1 winners, but as 3-year-olds can they best their elders?

Looking for a long-shot, particularly to fill out the exotics? Awesome Gem at 30/1 on the outside is 8-for-12 lifetime win/place/show on synthetics and 20-for-30 on the board overall, is coming in off a G2 dirt win in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and has a career-best all-weather speed figure of 116 -- better than Gio Ponti (114) and Mine That Bird (114) and only two clicks slower than Richard's Kid, all of whom are at 12/1.

This year's Breeders' Cup Classic certainly is an intriguing race.

Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss are taking a big chance with Zenyatta, risking her unbeaten lifetime record to race a new distance and against males, presumably in a gambit to dethrone likely favorite Rachel Alexandra as Horse of the Year.

I'm definitely not rooting against Zenyatta in her quest. But at 5/2, I just don't like the odds.

1 comment:

  1. My emotional picks are Richard's Kid (Maryland-bred) and Quality Road (virginia-bred) only because they are both from the Mid-Atlantic.

    But, whom am I kidding. I am happy that Zenyatta is here. Jess Jackson and anyone else that said this was going to be a so so race without Rachel and Sea of Starts are going to miss a great race.


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