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Don't be shy, Zenyatta: Mare steps into Breeders' Cup spotlight

As it now stands, she will race against the boys in Saturday's Classic. It was a quietly made decision. Now, the hoopla can begin.

November 03, 2009|BILL DWYRE

The biggest deal for one of horse racing's bigger deals, the Breeders' Cup, will slip quietly and officially into the limelight this morning.

Barring a late change of heart by her managers, Zenyatta will be formally entered in the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which she will race against the boys and become the pulse of her sport on one of its most important weekends.

This was a decision that, made weeks ago, could have been milked for the masses and trumpeted from towers. Horse racing is putting $25.5 million on the line in 14 huge races, all but one of them worth at least $1 million and the biggest one, the grand finale Classic, worth $5 million. Only the Dubai World Cup writes a bigger check, that for $6 million.

So Zenyatta's story line, the most compelling of all, was the billboard the event needed. Would the unbeaten 5-year-old mare have her quest for 14-0, in possibly her last race, be in a defense of her victory in last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic, the highlight of Friday's first six races at Santa Anita? Or would she step up and race the best of the world's male horses, where no female has won before, in the event's last race Saturday? If this were the NBA, David Stern would have 25 people in business suits, locked behind closed doors, demanding a decision so they could create TV ads and catchy slogans. But horse racing is a different animal.

So too are the humans who own and operate this heroic mare.

John Sherriffs, Zenyatta's trainer, was asked if anybody from the Breeders' Cup pressed him or owners Jerry and Ann Moss for a decision on which race they would run.

"Nope," he said.

Would it have made a difference?

"Nope," he said.

Sherriffs is a veteran trainer, highly successful, with more than 50 horses in his barns at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita and a Kentucky Derby victory in 2005 to his name with the 50-1 longshot Giacomo. So when the scenario was presented of the final Zenyatta decision being made in a huge boardroom, with the Mosses sitting on one side of the fancy table and Sherriffs and his wife, Dottie, who manages his stables, on the other -- hordes of reporters and TV cameras waiting outside -- Sherriffs laughed.

"We'll see how she is these last few days," he said Saturday, "and then we'll talk to the Mosses on the phone for a couple of minutes and that'll be it."

In other sports, considerations of similar consequence are influenced by marketing and branding and image and, most of all, money. With Zenyatta, the only consideration was Zenyatta.

She last ran Oct. 9. Since then, she has been trained for the additional distance of a 1 1/4 -mile Breeders' Cup Classic and the upgrade in competition she would face. She has been watched for any change in her gait, signifying injury, or any change in her eating habits or the color of her coat, signifying illness. With no change in those things, she has been asked to show signs of brilliance in all facets of her training.

How did she train?

"Brilliantly," Sherriffs said.

At 3:45 p.m. Saturday, in the final race of the 2009 Breeders' Cup, Zenyatta will load into the gate along with the likes of Mine That Bird, Einstein, Summer Bird and Colonel John.

Mine That Bird won this year's Kentucky Derby, Einstein this year's Santa Anita Handicap and Summer Bird this year's Belmont. Colonel John won the Santa Anita Derby and the Travers at Saratoga last year.

Still, Zenyatta has won more money than any of that group except the 7-year-old Einstein, has run consistently on synthetics and, at more than 1,200 pounds, is likely to be physically bigger than any of the boys.

She also is likely to be nowhere near close enough to them for any rough-housing, which can be a factor when fillies and mares race colts and horses.

Zenyatta's style, with veteran jockey Mike Smith aboard, is to stay way back and close like a runaway freight train. In the Clement Hirsch Grade I race at Del Mar in August, Smith had her so far back that nobody watching thought he could get her home first.

When he did, barely, Smith apologized to Sherriffs for a bad ride and then described to the press afterward the feeling of riding a horse clocked at 40 miles an hour in her last furlong.

"I felt like this," said the likable Smith, pulling his face back to imitate an astronaut on reentry.

There are four days until Breeders' Cup Classic day, and Zenyatta can now officially become the talk of the town -- certainly in the town of Arcadia. Sherriffs said he will be happy to be in the middle of it.

"It helps our sport. She's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said.

That sounds like an ad campaign. Roll out the billboards.



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