LOUISVILLE, Ky. » After crossing the finish line, Zenyatta knows only one place to go — straight to the winner’s circle. She’s visited it 19 times in her career. Al Stall Jr. isn’t sure she’ll get there a 20th time after the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
"She is beatable," the trainer of Blame said.
Zenyatta puts her perfect record on the line against the boys as the defending champion in the $5 million race tomorrow at Churchill Downs.
Along with the superstar mare and Blame, the 1 1/4 -mile race includes other top Horse of the Year contenders Haynesfield, Lookin At Lucky and Quality Road in the field of 12. Only Zenyatta and Haynesfield have won at the distance.
"There’s tremendous talent with a lot of experience," Stall said about the field. "With her in there, it takes it to the moon."
Zenyatta is clearly the sentimental favorite as well as the 8-5 favorite on the morning line, with Blame as the 9-2 second choice.
Blame came on strong in August, chasing down Quality Road to win the Whitney at Saratoga. Since then, Blame was second to Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Blame will be retired after the race tomorrow.
Stall believes the Classic is the strongest field Zenyatta has faced in her career. He points out that Blame is 3-for-4 on the dirt at Churchill, where Zenyatta has never raced.
The Classic goes off under the lights and Blame has won at night on the track.
"We’ve ticked every box as far as being comfortable in our surroundings," Stall said. "I think we can get first run on her and hopefully hold her off."
One question facing Zenyatta is how she will handle the so-called kickback created by the dirt and sand flying from the hooves of the horses in front of her. She typically drops well behind the field before gearing up for a big closing run under jockey Mike Smith.
"From where she runs, there’s not a lot of kickback. By the time she gets into the race, it won’t be an issue," her trainer John Shirreffs said. "Actually Zenyatta enjoys the dirt surface. The surface will have no effect on how she runs the race."
Her two victories on dirt came at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, while her other 17 were on synthetic surfaces in California, where kickback isn’t as big a factor.
Smith has no plans to change Zenyatta’s late running style, though falling too far behind early could add pressure against such a strong field.
"I certainly don’t want her up close," he said. "It’s worked 19 times one way. We don’t want to change it. You just need to follow who’s running well."
Shirreffs doesn’t believe Zenyatta needs to win tomorrow to secure her place in racing’s pantheon of greats.
"She’s already made history," he said. "She’s already beaten the boys, she’s already become the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and that’s history in itself."
Bob Baffert sees it differently. The trainer of Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky believes Zenyatta has to repeat in the Classic to win Horse of the Year honors. She lost out to Rachel Alexandra last year.
"She has to win only because he (Shirreffs) sort of stayed in California with her and didn’t venture around," Baffert said.
Like Baffert and Todd Pletcher, who oversees Quality Road, Stall is a fan of Zenyatta.
"I’d be happy for racing and I’d be happy for her (if she wins)," he said.
Zenyatta galloped 1 1/2 miles yesterday, her second day on the track since arriving Tuesday.
"You might think she’d be a little flat, but she was full of energy," Shirreffs said. "As the trainer, that’s what you look for — the enthusiasm and good energy."