Zenyatta's campaign has been a cautious one, designed to limit risks or challenges. She has raced outside California only once, has never faced males, was kept apart from Rachel Alexandra and has run a mere four times this year. A planned race in May at Churchill Downs was scrapped when the track came up "good" for the Louisville Distaff, the same track that was listed as "fast" two races later.
Some might argue that the plan has worked: Zenyatta is unbeaten, 13-for-13.
But has it? Zenyatta has become the equivalent of the college basketball team that feasts on soft foes, running up a perfect record against the likes of Coppin State, Dartmouth and Central Arkansas. It has threatened her legacy. Zenyatta might be remembered more for what she didn't do, whom she didn't run against, and owner Jerry Moss' timid handling than for what she accomplished on the racetrack.
Her career is now at a crossroads. Moss can do more of the same, run in the Ladies' Classic against fillies and mares or finally test his 5-year-old and enter her in the Breeders' Cup Classic against males. The deciding factor should not be what's best for his bank account, the Breeders' Cup, Santa Anita or even horse racing itself, but what's best for Zenyatta? Is Moss prepared to rob her of her last chance to prove herself or to earn the right to be called one of the best horses ever to race?
That's what this is really all about: Zenyatta's place in history. She deserves to run in the Classic because that's the only race that can truly define her. We already know she can beat Lethal Heat, Anabaa's Creation and Briecat on a synthetic surface at a track in California. We don't know how she stacks up against the best horses in the world. Should she win the Classic, she will retire as an iconic figure, one of the best ever. Should she win the Ladies' Classic, she will retire as a very good mare whose owner lacked the courage to see what she could really do. There's a big difference.
Already, Moss's handling of Zenyatta has cost her any shot of being named Horse of the Year. The owner never could have imagined that a once-in-a-lifetime-filly in Rachel Alexandra could have come around in the same year that Zenyatta piled up four more wins and remained unbeaten.
But she did. Even with a win in the Classic, Zenyatta's 2009 accomplishments would pale in comparison to those of Rachel Alexandra. Jess Jackson has been everything Moss has not: bold, unconventional and eager to show the world what a great horse he has. The result has been the greatest single-season campaign ever by a female racehorse, one that made Zenyatta an afterthought for much of the year. Rachel Alexandra has won eight races in 2009, five of them Grade 1s, three of them against males. The best Zenyatta can do is to win five races this year, four of them Grade 1, one of them against males.
There will be some who will no doubt vote against Rachel Alexandra to punish Jackson for his immature refusal to run his filly over the "plastic" synthetic surface at Santa Anita in the Breeders' Cup. But the anti-Jackson backlash won't be enough to put Zenyatta over the top.
Having squandered Zenyatta's biggest opportunity -- to take on and defeat Rachel Alexandra -- Moss is left only with the Classic, and there couldn't be a better year for Zenyatta to try this. With Rachel Alexandra done for 2009 and with European superstar Sea the Stars having been rushed off to the breeding shed, Zenyatta could face one of the weakest Classic fields ever. There is Summer Bird, a nice 3-year-old, a couple of European grass horses and little else. Zenyatta might even be the favorite, leaving Moss in an enviable position for any owner when there is $5 million up for grabs.
Moss and trainer John Shirreffs have little to lose. Few would hold a defeat in the Classic against Zenyatta. In fact, a gritty second- or third-place finish might do more for her reputation than a win in the Ladies' Classic. Nor would a loss cost her in the year-end voting. She has already wrapped up the older filly and mare championship.
OK, so this is not the easiest decision. There's a lot of money on the line and, yes, an undefeated record to consider. But it's an undefeated record compiled against cupcakes. For Zenyatta, it's time to try something else.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.