After a sensational 2008 campaign, Zenyatta seemed poised to step into the pantheon of racing’s most elite fillies and mares in 2009, but something happened on the way to the history books. More like 2 things – Rachel Alexandra and a shockingly unambitious campaign. Placed back to back, the contrast has caused Zenyatta’s plain vanilla schedule to look even worse.
Rachel Alexandra just concluded the most ambitious, aggressive, and challenging campaign that a top 3 year old filly has seen in this country in many years. Top fillies and mares have repeatedly faced colts in the past (See Lady’s Secret, Winning Colors, Serena’s Song et al.) but this is a different time and culture. Nowadays horses generally take the path of least resistance. That’s certainly been the case with Zenyatta…and then some! Zenyatta had a fabulous 2008. She was undefeated, brilliant and breathtaking with her sweeping move to blow by each field at will. She concluded with a easy win in the BC DISTAFF (That’s what it is and always will be). She could have retired with a championship and a place in history as a very good mare.
Instead she returned in 2009 and with that came a chance to establish a place among the elite mares in history. She had the opportunity to step outside the female ranks and shoot for a win or two in a major handicap race vs males. She could have shipped and won some of the important divisional races in NY – while simultaneously establishing that she was an elite mare on dirt as well. She could have tried the grass. She could have done many exciting things to put her talent on display and show just where she belongs from a historical perspective. Now here we are on October 1st and despite being in training since the spring, Zenyatta has raced just 3 times and done nothing at all outside her comfort zone. To date her campaign falls well short of even her 2008 season where she at least shipped to Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom and made 7 starts.
With so many ways to do something special this year, for some inexplicable reason Zenyatta’s connections have chosen the most unexciting and least challenging schedule possible this year. They cite the fact that the Breeders’ Cup is supposed to determine year-end championships but she has already been a champion in her division – this is about becoming extraordinary, not pursuing the ordinary. The Breeders’ Cup explanation is their rationale for not running against Rachel Alexandra – whose connections likely would have taken Rachel to any dirt track in America to face Zenyatta – which comes across as nothing more than a lame excuse to avoid a showdown with a horse she likely would have lost to and who has certainly surpassed her in rank and reputation. This also in no way addresses why she couldn’t have faced males in races like the Pacific Classic or Hollywood Gold Cup. Heck, even her stablemate who was running on the same schedule as Zenyatta was entered against males in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Neither does it address why she couldn’t ship outside California or run a race of two on dirt to diversify her resume and legacy. When reigning horse of the year Curlin retured for a 2008 campaign last year, his connections took him to Dubai, Kentucky, tried him on grass, won major races in New York and concluded in California. Looking back at a champion whose unbeaten record Zenyatta is presently targeting, Personal Ensign faced males in the Whitney and twice beat a Kentucky Derby winning filly to conclude her career. And here is Zenyatta – facing and beating an extraordinarily weak group of older mares in California time after time while her connections apparently have no desire to test her further.
Certainly Zenyatta’s connections are free to manage their horse any way they’d like, but should she conclude her career with 2 more wins to break Personal Ensign’s record, history will surely take into account how she was managed. If their goal was to simply ensure that Zenyatta retired undefeated, well then they are indeed doing a masterful job of managing her. But you can’t have it both ways. Taking the path of least resistance by avoiding challenges and never venturing outside her comfort zone – particularly in the face of such an aggressive and exciting campaign from Rachel Alexandra by contrast – will surely prevent Zenyatta from ranking alongside the all-time greats of the sport. She may indeed have that level of talent, but her connections have done an incredible disservice to her reputation and legacy by failing to allow her to demonstrate it on the track.
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