It’s all about Zenyatta at Breeders’ Cup
Friday’s first day of Breeders’ Cup horse racing at Santa Anita was a Ladies Day delight. Saturday’s second day is expected to be, well, the same thing.
Today is Zenyatta’s day.
No filly or mare has ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and they’ve run this race since 1984. One filly, Jolypha in 1992 at Gulfstream, finished in the money, a third to A.P. Indy. That’s it for females in this testosterone dash. So far.
The $5-million Classic has been the domain of the big boys, the rough and ready, who can power over whatever turf is presented and through whatever tight hole is presented.
This one is not for the faint of heart. As Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, notes, “When one of the boys bumps, another boy bumps back. When the girls get bumped, they just move away.”
That being said, Shirreffs has not only entered the unbeaten, 1,250-pound Zenyatta for today’s Classic but was not the least bit surprised when she was made the 5-2 morning-line favorite.
“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime,” Shirreffs said.
If you believe in omens, Shirreffs got one in the final Breeders’ Cup race Friday, the $2-million Ladies Classic won last year by, of course, Zenyatta. The winner was Life Is Sweet, also trained by Shirreffs and defeated easily in the three races against Zenyatta they have both entered since May.
Life Is Sweet resides in a stall at Hollywood Park right across from Zenyatta. Life Is Sweet has a personality somewhat counter to the last word in her name, a name that would have been a better fit for Zenyatta. Shirreffs likes to show visitors a picture on his laptop of groom Mario Espinoza, lying down in Zenyatta’s stall next to Zenyatta and applying ointment to her ankles as she rests on her side.
When visitors ask Shirreffs which stall belongs to Zenyatta, he is likely to tell them to go find the one where the mare is licking her groom.
Garrett Gomez, who had tried just about everything in his previous rides aboard Life Is Sweet and against Zenyatta, including trying to block her on the backstretch at Hollywood Park, laughed afterward when asked if the absence of Zenyatta this time changed the equation of the race.
“Well, yeah,” he said, “because I knew she probably would have ended up second.”
Zenyatta’s attempt to win her 14th race has caused the kind of stir that this event’s officials have coveted. Although she didn’t even race, on a day in which five of the six races were for female horses and $8.5 million of the $25.5 million in purses was at stake, attendance went up about 20% to 37,651, from last year’s 31,257. And the on-track betting handle increased 4% to $7,097,789.
“The minute it became official that Zenyatta would run in the Classic, there was an enormous spike in ticket sales,” said Allen Gutterman, vice president for marketing at Santa Anita. “You put a female against the boys and something happens in the public. It becomes electric.
“People are walking around here today, the day before she runs, trying to find seats. I attribute that to the buzz over Zenyatta. It’s nice to have a racing star.”
There will be several attempts, of course, to try to spoil this fairy tale.
Irish horse Rip Van Winkle has been installed as the second favorite on the morning line at 7-2. He is a 3-year-old with eight starts, four wins and $915,117 in winnings. He has also been hampered by bad feet, and every time one of the European trainers was asked about him this week, they began their answer with the phrase, “Well, if he is sound . . .”
Einstein is a Brazilian horse who has done all his racing in the U.S. He is a 7-year-old with $2,903,324 in purses, a nice piece of that from this year’s Santa Anita Handicap. He is trained by Helen Pitts-Blasi, who was the first female trainer to win the Big Cap and would be the first female trainer to win the Classic.
Mine That Bird is memorable for his who-is-that-and-where-did-he-come-from finish to win this year’s Kentucky Derby. He did so under the incredible weaving, rail-hugging dash of Calvin Borel, who has made such rides into an art form. Borel will be aboard again and trainer Chip Woolley said, “I’m going to tell Calvin to ride him like he did in the Derby.”
Both Einstein and Mine That Bird start the day with little respect at 12-1.
Another entry aptly named for speed of wing, Summer Bird, will try to add his victories in the Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup in only his ninth race. Since the Kentucky Derby, Summer Bird, 9-2 for this race, has lost only twice -- to Mine That Bird in the Derby and a nice little filly named Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness.
Colonel John, always competitive, will attempt to improve on his sixth-place finish last year. Richard’s Kid, with veteran Alex Solis in the saddle, will look for a repeat of his Pacific Classic win. Both have been pegged at 12-1.
Quality Road and Gio Ponti will carry morning-line odds of 12-1 into the day, with Twice Over, Girolamo and Regal Ransom getting 20-1 and Awesome Gem 30-1.
Very possibly, they all will be window dressing for horse racing’s Big Z, who will do her little dance in the paddock, perk her ears up when she comes on track, adhere to jockey Mike Smith’s tight hold on her through most of the race, and then take off like a rocket down the stretch.
That’s her style. That’s her swagger. And girls will be girls.