With Rachel Alexandra at rest and long ago withdrawn from the Breeders' Cup debate and the European sensation Sea the Stars retired on the heels of a career-concluding victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the question of Zenyatta's assignment on the first weekend of November has moved to the front burner of the autumn's racing debate.
In a year that has been dominated by a filly whose 3-year-old campaign held the racing public spellbound from May until September before owner Jess Jackson decided that a late-season vacation was in order, Zenyatta's is the only truly compelling story in advance of the 26th Breeders' Cup, the second run over the refuse on which racing in conducted at Santa Anita Park and the call to run Zenyatta in the Classic is gaining volume.
What would better define the behemoth mare whose undefeated career spans 13 races, putting her on equal footing, technically at least, with the immortal Personal Ensign, who defined herself and perhaps the Breeders' Cup in the final start of her career with an impossible rally at muddy, rain swept Churchill Downs that preserved perfection by a desperate and scant nose at the expense of Winning Colors, the Kentucky Derby winner that year in the Distaff of 1988, arguably the most dramatic moment in the first quarter century of the Breeders' Cup?
Personal Ensign and Winning Colors had defeated males before facing one another at Churchill. Rachel Alexandra, who will be Horse of the Year regardless of what unfolds at Santa Anita next month, has won the Preakness, Haskell Invitational and Woodward Stakes at the expense of the boys of her own generation and the best available Grade I caliber older males. Great fillies define themselves by beating males. No doubt, owner Jerry Moss has considered this fact.
If Zenyatta is to be remembered among the great fillies and mares it will not be for having won a dozen races at the expense of overmatched opposition over synthetic surfaces and one on dirt in Arkansas. Genuine legacies require more rigorous campaigns before sustaining themselves in the face of the test of time. The majority of great mares have defeated males. The majority of great mares, however, were not 13-for-13 and undefeated going into the Breeders' Cup.
What significant purpose would be served by running Zenyatta in the Classic?
She will not usurp Rachel Alexandra's already secure victory in the Horse of the Year ballot. She is already assured a second Eclipse Award as the season's champion older female. A second victory in the Ladies' Classic is no small accomplishment and the extension of her undefeated career to a 14th victory in that race would certainly buttress Zenyatta's place in history and put her eventually in the Hall of Fame, where the plaque commemorating her career would be identical to every other.
Often, the things that serve best the interest of the horse and its connections differ dramatically from the consensus of public and media clamor.
At this stage, a 14th victory is far more important than a race against males in the Classic, which would pose a test she is no cinch to pass. Summer Bird, winner of the Belmont Stakes, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, is a serious horse and this Classic, a race in which Europeans Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator finished first and second a year ago at Santa Anita, will see a strong foreign delegation likely to include the formidable Twice Over, winner of the Emirates Champion Stakes last weekend at Newmarket. The lightly regarded Gitano Hernando's recent synthetic-track success in the Goodwood and Sea the Stars' retirement will encourage the connections of perhaps more Europeans than have ever started in a Classic. This will, no doubt, be a tough spot for Zenyatta.
The race formerly known as the Distaff will provide a sufficient test. It too will draw a potentially strong European delegation and Careless Jewel, winner of the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in August, then the Cotillion at Philadelphia Park, is a better filly than Zenyatta has encountered since she defeated Ginger Punch at Oaklawn Park last year. Extending her unbeaten record to 14 in the Ladies Classic over a filly with the speed and ability we have seen from Careless Jewel will require nothing less than Zenyatta's best effort.
Though it may have been built in great part at the expense a herd of forgettable opponents and almost entirely on the man-made surfaces of Southern California, 14 straight wins without ever having experienced defeat will, on its own merit, cement Zenyatta's name in pavement of history with a record that will stand for a very long time.
Is she a better racehorse than Personal Ensign? Probably not, but history has a way of blurring the subjective, leaving only what appears at the bottom line. Fillies beat colts all the time. With a 14th win, however, Zenyatta, even in Rachel Alexandra's year, would have this spotlight to herself. She deserves the moment.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.