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TrackNotes: Zenyatta Not All That

It never ceases to amuse me how racing writers, in dipping to the same level as the blowin'-in-the-wind general media, bestow greatness on the latest very nice thing.

"Zenyatta's quest for her 17th victory would make her perhaps the 3rd greatest racehorse to ever live," Charles Jay writes for "She's already considered the greatest female racehorse to ever live . . . Winning this Sunday's Vanity would no doubt cement her place in thoroughbred racing history and put her on the greatness list after the immortal Man O'War and the indomitable Secretariat."

It gets worse.

"I have been fortunate enough to see other greats, too: Kelso, Forego, John Henry and, yes, Rachel Alexandra," John Pricci writes for "But given her unique combination of personality and ability, Zenyatta has entered the rarified air normally reserved for the best thoroughbreds ever to walk the planet. I've seen many great horses in the flesh: Bid, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Ruffian. And great horses have a presence. But the show Zenyatta puts on; the bowing, the prancing?"

What is this, the Lipizzaner Stallions or horse racing?

Pricci's air is so rarified, it's a vacuum of logic.

If I came to your house and reeled off better horses off the top of my head, I'd be "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave." And the great mare Azeri enters the Hall of Fame today.

The reality is that racing fans will be arguing about the "greatness" of super mare Zenyatta until all of us in the here and now are dead and gone. Even after that, it will be "I hear she was the greatest," with the immediate retort "Yeah, but grandpappy said she didn't beat nothin'. "

Six-year-old Zenyatta ran her perfect record to 18 by capturing the Clement L Hirsch Stakes (Grade I) by a long neck at Del Mar on Saturday. Her streak is greater than the 16 consecutive victories reeled off by both Cigar and Citation.

Is this were a simpler time, perhaps like, oh, 1973, she'd be on the cover of Time and at least gaining a mention and maybe a mug shot in most of the nation's newspapers, almost all of which have stopped covering horse racing.

Or with the way she's been campaigned, maybe not.

Now I love Zenyatta. She's a huge, magnificent specimen. She plays the crowd with her Citation-esque head bow and ground scratching. Amazing to me is how she runs the same race nearly every time: drop to last, contend on the turn, swing wide and close it out. Pace doesn't appear to matter. And then there is the perfect record.

But even those who claim to - or really do - know a thing or two about racing are having a very difficult time calling Zenyatta the greatest horse ever, or even the greatest female ever. She just has not conquered the land, and because her connections have fashioned two straight years of a play-not-to-lose campaign, her legacy in the game is taking a beating.

It is inconceivable that a horse that has done something no other top thoroughbred has ever done - remain undefeated lifetime with a record winning streak and be female - is so questioned.

Greatest horse ever?

"I can't see that," says Jim Jamgotchian, the owner of Rinterval, the horse who challenged Zenyatta down the stretch Saturday. "The best I can give her is the best California-raced horse of all time. That should piss everybody off."

The tide is starting to turn against Zenyatta in the racing media. And some of these people vote on the year-end awards.

"Can we honestly say (Zenyatta's) better than Ruffian?" Nick Canepa writes for the . "(Ruffian) led at each pole in every race she ran, setting records in all eight stakes starts. I refuse to say Zenyatta is better than Ruffian. I can't. I won't."

The supposedly grizzled national handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, Mike Watchmaker, seems to be elevating Zenyatta in a most backhanded, Twilight Zone-ish manner, almost as if his editors told him to, which means it's not really an elevation:

"It was Zenyatta who ran on Saturday, and if the time hadn't come already, it certainly has come now to recognize that Zenyatta has earned the right to be measured by a different standard. It's not about who Zenyatta beats, anymore. All that matters now is this: Eighteen for 18, and counting. Eight straight Grade 1 victories, and counting. And 12 Grade 1 wins overall."

I think Watchmaker is actually reflecting the shallowness of the vehement arguments Zenyatta wingnuts make without doing the handicapping. He betrays Zenyatta's competition, or lack of it, on Saturday:

"If any other mare had won the Hirsch the way Zenyatta did Saturday, it frankly would have attracted only passing attention, and even less praise."

I think if you run the LP backwards in a "Paul Is Dead" kind of way, Watchmaker might be saying "she's beaten nobody."

Her soft schedule is gaining attention.

"Meanwhile, the bum of the month club will reconvene on Oct. 2 at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet when Zenyatta will once again defeat an overmatched bunch of fillies and mares and the result will generate barely a ripple of attention outside of the industry," Bob Ehalt for ESPN. "The magic of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, or the Apple Blossom or even the Vanity was missing because the horses she was chasing (in the Hirsch) were not in her league. She was going to win, you knew it."

People are even debating what everybody saw Saturday as Zenyatta won her third Hirsch in a row. Did jockey Mike Smith have to kick Big Z's ass to get her going to the wire?

"I don't know," Jamgotchian said, "but what I saw was him hitting her pretty good three or four times with his whip. That didn't look to me like she was winning as she pleased."

While Smith didn't wind up and slap Zenyatta down the stretch, he at least poked her a few times to let her know he had the whip.

* * *

The debate first hit the fan in January when Rachel Alexandra won Horse of the Year right on the heels of Zenyatta's dramatic win in North America's biggest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic, which was and still is the domain of the boys.

But as Rachel was beating her three-year-old classmates, both boys and girls, and also the older boys, owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shireffs were running Zenyatta in the ultimate closed and controlled environment: at home in California, on synthetic surfaces, facing restricted (female) company and running against competition whose talent has been questioned.

Like the Santa Ana winds, it's happening again this year.

Last year, Zenyatta ran the Milady, the Vanity, the Clement Hirsch and the Lady's Secret before winning the big one. This year, she's run the Santa Margarita, the Apple Blossom, the Vanity and the Clement Hirsch. Her 2010 competition is decidedly weaker, and in her last two she's won by well less than a length each time, but there's even debate about that. Was she just toying with them and doing only what was necessary to win? Or is she getting older and perhaps losing a step?

Zenyatta's people have said they are pointing to the Breeder's Cup and the Classic. They're dying to get Horse of the Year and they think a Classic win and 20-0 will do it. In an eerie, Pavlovian manner, they're taking the majestic mare through nearly an identical campaign as last year's HOY-losing string to get her to Churchill Downs in November. But there's one big exception: this year's Breeders' Cup will be run on dirt. Z's run on dirt twice in her life.

You can bet the Mosses and Shireffs are, to a degree, rolling the dice that no other horse this year will have anything close to the once-in-a-lifetime campaign Rachel did last year. But if Quality Road wins out, he'll legitimately lay claim to the Oscar.

It appears that Zenyatta is now pointed to the October 2nd Zenyatta Stakes (formerly the Lady's Secret and that still riles me) at Santa Anita. (There are rumblings the traditional Oak Tree Meet at Santa Anita will be run at Hollywood this fall because of major track problems at Santa Anita. That's another column. Hollywood is considered Zenyatta's home course!)

Which means she'll be missing the better competition of races like the Personal Ensign on August 29th at Saratoga, with Rachel Alexandra in the field; or even the Pacific Classic against a field of beatable boys on August 28th at Del Mar.

C'mon Queen Z. You can't beat up on The Little Sisters of the Poor forever.

Imagine. As great as Zenyatta is, we may never know how good she really is. Or could have been.

Fickle Finger
Widely touted as the best American horse in training today, at least before Saturday, Quality Road will try to "bounce back" after getting beaten a head by Blame in the thrilling Whitney Handicap on Saturday at Saratoga. See how fickle this game is?

QR seemed to have the race, but Blame would not back down and nipped him at the wire. They both beat hard worker Musket Man and 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

Blame appears headed to the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on October 2nd with Quality Road pointing toward the September 4th Woodward. After that, it's on to Kentucky for the Breeders' Cup.

Evening Collapse
Sad to hear the news of Tuscan Evening collapsing and dying right after a workout Sunday at Del Mar. A heart attack is suspected.

The female turfer, 5, was six-for-six this year including the Grade I Gamely Stakes at Hollywood. I saw her win the Grade III Modesty Handicap at Arlington Park on July 17th as she turned in a masterful demonstration of controlling the pace to win easily.

She ran just fast enough to stay ahead, but not so fast as to burn up and get caught at the wire. I tried to beat her that day, but she put me in my place. It was such a great performance, I almost didn't mind losing.

The Irish-bred was being pointed to the Beverly D Stakes on Million Day at Arlington on August 21st.

Fee State
We're seeing some reaction and consequences regarding last week's topic of Illinois advance deposit wagering (ADW) bettors being shut out from the premier U.S. tracks in a dispute over fees.

The Illinois Racing Board imposed a ceiling of 5% of what out-of-state tracks can charge ADWs to provide their signals to Illinois bettors.

It's not good.

"IRB figures through Aug. 3 indicate average daily ADW wagering has plunged 35.7% from $316,532 a day to $203,394 since the fee cap took effect," Bloodhorse reports. It's difficult to say how much Arlington is losing in what would have to be an ADW boycott of Arlington by Illinois bettors. Arlington is still available on ADWs here.

"The timing, (Arlington president Roy) Arnold said, could not be worse as the entire racing industry is facing contraction and the loss of customers. While the cap may meet one of its objectives of sending more customers back to Illinois offtrack betting locations rather than making their wagers through the ADW systems, Arnold said overall it will result in a drop-off of horse racing bettors."

Arnold said that "The only way it makes sense is if the OTBs pick up 100% of the handle they were making at the ADW channel" before the fee was imposed.

"Considering the pressures being put upon all racing jurisdictions, Arnold said he understands the action of the legislature and IRB to impose the cap. But he said it is a form of protectionism that could be harmful if other states elect to go the same route."

It will be interesting to see if any exceptions are made for next week's Arlington Million card, the biggest day of the year in Illinois racing.


Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes (nearly) every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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