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Nov 12, 2010

Zenyatta - Two Strides Short of Perfection

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With tens of thousands at Churchill Downs and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, around the world urging her on through the stretch, the great Zenyatta came up two jumps short of putting an amazing exclamation point to a glorious career. After 19 consecutive victories, the six-year-old mare finally tasted defeat in the Breeders' Cup Classic at the hands of the four-year-old colt Blame.

Jockey Mike Smith, who rode the champion in all but three of her starts, did his best despite an awful start as the horse and rider saved ground for most of the race, especially around the final turn before moving into the three- path at the head of the stretch.

The dynamic duo then plowed forward into the six-hole inside the final furlong but the John Shirreffs-trained mare could never track down Blame, who held her off by a desperate head.

It was a case of Zenyatta running out of racetrack after opening with an extremely slow 26 1/5 first quarter. She was a good 15 lengths behind First Dude early on, the same number of lengths she trailed after the first quarter- mile in her 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic victory. The two main differences between that race and this one are the 2010 version was a much tougher field and last year's event was held in her own backyard at Santa Anita.

Blame came into the Classic as a five-time graded stakes winner, including two victories over the Churchill Downs surface in the Grade I Stephen Foster and the Grade II Clark Handicap. That last fact should not have gone unnoticed as Zenyatta was making her first start in Kentucky and just her third on traditional dirt. Horses don't close as effectively on true dirt as they do on Pro-Ride, and her 48 1/5 final half-mile was significantly slower than the 47- second flat she ran in the '09 Classic.

Sent off as the even-money favorite, Zenyatta still showed tremendous heart in defeat, and all things considered, this might be the most impressive race of her illustrious career even though she lost.

The closest comparison of a horse almost remembered more for losing than winning is the great Seattle Slew, who dominated his rivals in winning the 1977 Triple Crown and then knocked off the 1-2 favorite Affirmed (the last Triple Crown winner) in the 1978 Marlboro Cup Handicap.

Two races later, in the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew broke through the gate prior to the race and then was caught in a massive speed duel with Affirmed and Life's Hope through unheard of early fractions - 22 3/5, 45 1/5 and 1:09 2/5 - for a 12-furlong affair.

After putting away the Harbor View Farm entry, a tired Seattle Slew was caught on the rail by the late-closing Exceller and it appeared he would fold after setting such an abusive pace.

Instead of collapsing, Slew battled back from almost a full length off of Exceller at the 1/16th-pole and came on again only to lose by a nose.

Zenyatta's career will most likely be remembered for her 19 straight victories. However, as the years go by, her legacy should be altered to account for her gutsiest performance in a race she actually lost - the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.

IS HORSE OF THE YEAR UP FOR GRABS?

Last year's Horse of the Year voting was a battle between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra and the latter won the award despite the former becoming the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. This year could provide just as much debate even though Blame squarely defeated Zenyatta in the one and only meeting between the two horses.

Blame won four of five races in 2010, including three Grade I events. He bankrolled over $3.75 million, but was favored in just two of his five starts and was never a household name until he knocked off the undefeated superstar. In addition, he carried 121 lbs. or fewer in three of his five races.

Zenyatta won five consecutive Grade I events to start the year, but she failed in her lone attempt where she went off higher than 1-2 odds. After winning the Santa Margarita Handicap in her first 2010 race, she never faced a field with more than five opponents until losing to Blame.

She also raced primarily on synthetics and against her own sex when most experts wondered what was left to prove against other fillies and mares. On the other hand, she did carry over 126 lbs. twice, including 129 for the second time in her career in winning the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park.

There will be a faction of voters who will side with Zenyatta after she was arguably snubbed a year ago. However, the bottom line is this: the two horses met once and Blame prevailed.

TWO OTHER MONSTER BREEDERS' CUP PERFORMANCES

There is another mare that has a chance to win Horse of the Year honors and that's Goldikova. The Mile winner became the first horse to win three Breeders' Cup events taking the Mile for the third straight year, and this year's victory might have been the easiest of them all.

The five-year-old didn't break any course records as she did in the 2009 edition but she cruised past Sidney's Candy inside the final furlong as if he was standing still, running her final quarter-mile in a brisk 23 seconds.

Goldikova finished the year with five wins in six starts, and more importantly, four of the victories came against the colts.

Saturday's other huge triumph came in the Juvenile when undefeated Uncle Mo cruised to a 4 1/4-length win over Boys At Tosconova. Not since Devil's Bag and Easy Goer burst on the scene in 1983 and 1988, respectively, has there been a two-year-old as impressive as Uncle Mo.

The son of Indian Charlie (third in the 1998 Kentucky Derby) hit the track for the first time in August, earning a 102 Beyer for his 14 1/4-length devastating maiden victory. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt followed that effort with a 4 3/4-length score in the one mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.

Uncle Mo was sent off as the 7-5 favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over a field of nine others, including Boys At Tosconova, who also received a 102 Beyer in his maiden win. The son of Officer then won the Hopeful at Saratoga, but the Juvenile was his first race over seven-furlongs.

The expected match race looked as if it might develop at the top of the stretch when Boys At Tosconova came within a half-length of Uncle Mo. But in a blink of an eye, Uncle Mo opened up a two-length lead, which widened to four in a matter of seconds.

The key question going into next year is whether Uncle Mo will turn out to be another Devil's Bag, who failed to flourish as a three-year-old, or Easy Goer, who would have won the Triple Crown if it hadn't been for Sunday Silence. Only time will tell.



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