Girl Power: Filly Zenyatta beats field of colts to join the greats
Monday 09 November 2009
If racehorses teach us anything, it is not to perceive the hand of destiny in random events. So many unaccountable things happen on a racecourse that its habitués tend to end up treating the rest of their lives in much the same way – as some kind of across-the-board wager, one that may or may not come off. The best you can hope to do is enjoy the ride.
Except then along came Zenyatta. Mike Smith, her jockey, shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. "She's sent from God. It's His filly. I think He wanted a horse, and made her and brought her down here to race against everyone."
To the organisers of the 26th Breeders' Cup that may not seem such a far-fetched proposition. In the moments after Zenyatta passed the post on Saturday one of them could be seen by the trackside, shoulders shaking as he sobbed with joy. He was not alone. For the previous two minutes had not only vindicated the precarious billing of the Thoroughbred World Championships, but also implied some kind of affectionate intervention by such gods as govern the fortunes of the Turf.
Even if the oldest among 58,825 witnesses has been coming here since childhood – even if he saw Seabiscuit himself, Citation, Swaps, Round Table, Buckpasser, Damascus, Affirmed – he would find it hard to testify that this gorgeous art-deco grandstand has ever hummed with a greater sense of privilege. By crowning one of the landmark American racing careers with an epoch-making performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Zenyatta fortified the conviction that the sport has hit one of the most precious seams of glory in its long history.
Beforehand, it seemed that the absence of Sea The Stars and Rachel Alexandra, champions of their generation either side of the Atlantic, was a crisis for the Breeders' Cup. And certainly reactionaries in the American sport will have become increasingly disgruntled during the meeting, with the Europeans again making the innovations in the series – two consecutive years on a synthetic track, and new prizes tailored to their pedigrees – seem a reckless excess of hospitality.
But even the most disenchanted observers were about to be drawn together in a moment of redemption so intense that it seemed to unfold in an exquisite agony. For Zenyatta seemed animated by so transparent a sense of destiny that any anti-climax would have been grievously hard to bear.
She had arrived here unbeaten in 13 starts, not least in the Ladies' Classic here last year, and so shared the record taken into retirement by the great Personal Ensign. Now, with the opportunity to take the record outright, she was being pitched against nine Group One-winning males for the world's richest prize.
Compared with the connections of Rachel Alexandra, whose refusal to run her on what they disparage as a "plastic" surface seemed so mean-spirited, those of Zenyatta had embraced the boldest of gambles. She could have won the fillies' race again, on Friday, at her leisure. But they saw the bigger picture, and what their filly did as a result should help everyone else do the same, too.
At the entrance to the parade ring, Zenyatta planted herself, as though to secure the attention that was already guaranteed. Then she began prancing and high-stepping, in a brazen exhibition of very masculine power and egotism. Five thousand pink banners – reading "Girl Power: Go Zenyatta" – had been distributed among the crowd who whooped and cheered her every step. When she walked through the tunnel and stepped onto the track, the softening sunlight and hazy mountain backdrop obtained a sepia quality, as though anticipating the perspectives of nostalgia.
The tension in the stands was heightened as Quality Road started going berserk at the stalls. Zenyatta herself had been reluctant to load, and when the unruly colt was withdrawn, and the whole process had to be repeated, she would only enter the gate without Smith. Then, once he had clambered aboard, disaster. She splayed her feet on breaking, and barely consented to chase the disappearing colts. "She wouldn't move, period," Smith recalled afterwards. "I thought: 'Oh God, not today.' I had to get her out of there – I had to hit her out of there."
The stands were buzzing with dismay as the field surged past, with Rip Van Winkle being driven forward to share the lead and Zenyatta tailed off, insisting on her prerogatives. She looked ready to pull herself up. Even when she began to show an interest, leaving the back straight – just as Rip Van Winkle started running on the spot – she seemed to have little prospect of getting involved. But then she just took off. Smith angled her between rivals and ran down the top-class Gio Ponti with a wild, veering finish, with Twice Over running the race of his life for Henry Cecil in third. "The crowd started screaming," Smith said. "And I thought maybe she would stop and pose again. She started pricking her ears and looking, and I got after her a little bit and she went on, believe it or not, well within herself. She didn't even take a breath after the race. It's just incredible."
It would certainly seem so, that the Breeders' Cup should find a horse capable of making both Sea The Stars and Rachel Alexandra seem diminished by their absence, rather than the other way round. Certainly the notion that our own champion "had nothing left to prove" on his retirement has duly proved a very complacent one. Of course he might very well have beaten Zenyatta, but you would not have minded seeing it for yourself.
On any other day, the astonishing acceleration of Goldikova would have topped the bill. Like Conduit, she repeated her success here last year, and contributed to a record six overseas winners over the two days. Ahmed Ajtebi repaid the faith of his head of state when Vale Of York landed a shock win in the Juvenile – a first Breeders' Cup win for Saeed bin Suroor since 2001 – while Godolphin's senior rider, Frankie Dettori, consoled himself by winning the turf version for John Gosden, for the second year running, on Pounced.
It was this spree for the raiders that made Zenyatta so critical for the hosts. As the director of the Breeders' Cup says, it was only after the Europeans started beating them that the Americans really began to get fired up for the Ryder Cup. With the conspicuous exception of the Ballydoyle team – whose appalling meeting was barely mitigated by the success of Man Of Iron in the Marathon on Friday – men of all nations could leave united in satisfaction.
Bob Baffert, who saddled Richard's Kid to finish sixth, as usual put it well. "The only time ever I didn't mind getting beat in a big race," he said. "What a thrill to see history being made. Zenyatta made the Breeders' Cup. I've never seen a crowd so captivated. It felt like a horse winning the third leg of the Triple Crown." That is just the kind of buzz craved by the marketing men who are busy drafting a new image for British racing. But you can't script a story like this. It's only ever in the stars.
Sparkling Taff (2.55 Carlisle) Well-treated on his old form and, lightly raced of late, hinted he would soon be back to his peak when lasting a good bit longer at Haydock last time.
Sea Venture (3.50 Southwell) On a very tempting mark and new trainer who is qualified to make the most of it, as was clear from a promising resumption at Carlisle last month.
One to watch
Silent Act (Mrs A Perrett) has improved as she has relaxed and only a rival well ahead of his rating could beat her at Kempton the other day.
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Big Zeb is 4-1 from 6-1 with Totesport for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after a straightforward reappearance success at Navan yesterday.
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