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Zenyatta's streak shouldn't be

To put Zenyatta's streak into perspective, imagine if Joe DiMaggio had spotted the pitcher one strike in every at-bat during his 56-game hitting streak or Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma Sooners had started down a touchdown on the scoreboard in each of their 47 consecutive victories post-World War II. Or maybe John Wooden had decided to hold out Bill Walton until the second half of each game in UCLA's 88-game mastery of college basketball during the 1970s.

That's how insanely impossible Zenyatta's 19 consecutive victories have been in her perfect career.

Speed kills, as they say, and there have been books written about it, mathematical figures produced and sold to quantify it and legions of handicappers who swear by that fact.


Despite critics who say Zenyatta may not have tested the most difficult challenges along the way to 19-0, the manner in which she has rattled off these victories is what astonishes those racing folks who look at things objectively. Forget East versus West, males versus females, synthetic tracks versus natural dirt. The bottom line is that horses are not supposed to be able to close from dead last early and win 19 straight races.

Statistics show that front-running horses, or those racing near the front of the pack, win two-thirds or more of the main track races across America. Speed kills, as they say, and there have been books written about it, mathematical figures produced and sold to quantify it and legions of handicappers who swear by that fact.

The dominance of early speed makes sense from a practical standpoint; horses racing near the front of the pack often avoid traffic trouble, make their way to the inside and take the shortest way home around the oval. This isn't track and field with staggered lane assignments. Go wide, and you give your competition sometimes as much as a six- to 10-length advantage.

So along comes Zenyatta, slow as molasses early, mind you, and changes all that. Last to first. She does it every time without fail, in breathtaking, oh-no-she-didn't fashion.

It's cool to have a flair for the dramatic, but racing fans who are suckers for the Silky Sullivan, late-charging types often are chided by their speed-loving compatriots as being snookered into believing a false truth. The speed purists believe that only horses that are fast early and fast late are really great horses. Think along the lines of Secretariat or Spectacular Bid. Come-from-behinders are myths, teases, not nearly as impressive as you might think, they say.

Zenyatta clearly has stated her case differently.

Deep-closing horses not only are victims of traffic trouble once they commence their rally, as well as the previously stated likelihood of ground loss while circling their victims, but they're also at the mercy of the early pace. If the front-runners extend a 10-length advantage while running slowly early on, they'll have plenty left in the tank late. Imagine giving your jogging partner a two-block start, then allowing him or her to walk the first half-mile. Good luck catching up.

Zenyatta has been last early in 14 of her 19 wins, and the five other times she raced next-to-last early on. In a sport in which the average opening half-mile of a race at her caliber should be around 47 seconds, the average opening half-mile split of Zenyatta's stakes races has been run about five lengths slower than that, meaning she has to work even harder to make the deficits.

One of the reasons Zenyatta is slow to get into stride early in her races is her immense physical size.


One of the reasons Zenyatta is slow to get into stride early in her races is her immense physical size. It takes a big horse like her a while to get those legs and muscles going after being sprung out of the confined starting gate. When horses stand more than 17 hands tall and tip the scales at 1,200 pounds, they don't pop out like a jack-in-the-box. A hand is an old unit of measure equaling 4 inches, so Zenyatta is about 70 inches tall from the base of her neck (withers) to the ground.

In fair discussion, the magic of Zenyatta is not that she's beaten the world's best horses every day. She hasn't, to be honest, even though she's raced exclusively in Grade 1 races in the past year-plus -- although many of those races have been restricted to just female runners. The magic of Zenyatta is the manner in which she has won. She leaves her fans breathless every time while giving her detractors a sliver of "I told you so!" hope every single race as she looks hopelessly beaten in the upper stretch.

It's that ultimate tease on both sides of the aisle that makes every one of her races compelling. It's not surprising that her owner, Jerry Moss of A&M Records fame, had a hand in producing The Police's hit "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." In this case, life is imitating art, to be sure. And it's a beautiful scene.

Zenyatta overcame many of the same obstacles listed above to win last year's Classic at Santa Anita on a synthetic racetrack across town from her Hollywood Park home in Inglewood, Calif. Now she gets a chance to take our breath away at Churchill Downs on natural dirt in the heartland of horse racing. Will Zenyatta win the Breeders' Cup Classic? Logic says no. You can't spot these kinds of horses all those advantages laid out and keep finding yourself in the winner's circle afterward. If she loses, the most likely culprits will be traffic trouble, losing too much ground or not being able to overcome such incredible competition behind a pace disadvantage. Or, maybe she just won't be good enough this day.

But let's not forget that this has been one illogical ride from the very beginning for Zenyatta. Root and bet against her knowing full well you've had a chance to read the warning label.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website Horseplayernow.com. You can e-mail him at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.