Six Breeders’ Cup champs will try to do it again

Six previous Breeders’ Cup champions were pre-entered last Wednesday for Friday’s and Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup XXVII at Churchill Downs, including the unbeaten Zenyatta and top European turf miler Goldikova, who will be attempting to win a record third consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile.

The other four champions include Midday in the Filly & Mare Turf, California Flag in the Turf Sprint, Informed Decision in the Filly & Mare Sprint and Forever Together, who won the 2008 Filly & Mare Turf but finished third last year.

Midday, trained by Henry Cecil, has won three of four races in 2010, including consecutive Group 1 victories in the Nassau Stakes and Yorkshire Oaks in Great Britain and the Prix Vermeille in France. The 4-year-old Oasis Dream filly’s biggest competition could come from the John Shirreffs-trained Harmonious, a 3-year-old daughter of Dynaformer who won the American Oaks at Hollywood Park on July 3 and goes into the Breeders’ Cup off a 4 1/4-length victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on Oct. 16 at Keeneland.

What do you think of these six horses’ chances this year?

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Alcindor may soon be center of attention

Bob Baffert, who’s won three Kentucky Derbies, has trained many talented horses throughout his Hall of Fame career. But he may never have trained a horse with a name that raised as many eyebrows as the one who debuted in the third race at Hollywood Park on Saturday.

Alcindor, named after the former UCLA and Lakers standout Lew Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in May 1971 after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the first of his eventual six NBA titles, is a 3-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song who was purchased for $1.15 million by Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale.

He’s getting a late start to his career, much like a horse by the name of Zenyatta, who didn’t make her first start until late in her 3-year-old campaign. But he showed in his career bow that he could live up to the name Alcindor, who at one time led his high school, Power Memorial Academy in New York, to 71 consecutive victories before leading the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA titles and an 88-2 career record while in Westwood.

“He was a really big horse and looked like he was going to be something special,” Baffert said while explaining why it took so long for the dark bay colt to make his first start and why he was named after the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Alcindor stalked early fractions of 21.86, 44.94 and 56.86 seconds and closed from third after the first quarter-mile to get up and beat 6-5 favorite Chapman’s Peak by a nose, running the six furlongs in 1:09.45 under jockey Martin Garcia as the 8-5 second choice in the wagering.

“He showed a lot of grit to win,” Baffert said. “I thought he would be on the lead, but I liked the way he sat behind horses and waited.”

Along with his physical appearance, the Kentucky-bred Alcindor showed in his workouts that he could be a runner. He turned in two bullet works in August at Hollywood Park, drilling five furlongs in 59.40 on Aug. 7 and six furlongs in 1:11.80 on Aug. 14.

Derby winners Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem all hold a special place in Baffert’s heart, as do other standouts he’s trained like Midnight Lute, Silverbulletday, Pioneerof the Nile and Lookin At Lucky.

But if Alcindor continues to progress, he could be a major player in the Strub Series for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita this coming winter and give Baffert another major player in his barn.

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Unbeaten Zenyatta deserves better

Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, was asked by the media at Keeneland last Friday how he would feel if his remarkable mare lost in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was not named the 2010 Horse of the Year.

“It would be almost too much,” he said. “It would be a real slap in the face. I think she deserves it on what she has done on the track and as for the industry as a whole.”

I couldn’t agree more with Shirreffs.

Number one, Zenyatta should have been named Horse of the Year in 2008 over a colt, Curlin, who lost twice. When Curlin finished off the board in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, that should have marked the end of his candidacy.

Secondly, Zenyatta should have shared Horse of the Year honors a year ago with Rachel Alexandra. Neither horse did a thing wrong in 2009 and they both deserved to be honored with the award.

You can argue all you want about whether Zenyatta is the best or even one of the best race horses of our time, but one thing is crystal clear — she’s the most amazing horse I’ve ever seen.

I’m a big baseball fan and I always make this distinction when asked to name the best pitcher I’ve ever seen — Sandy Koufax was the best, but Nolan Ryan was the most amazing because of how he continued to perform as a power pitcher well into his mid-40s.

While none of us knows for sure if Zenyatta is the best race horse we’ve seen, you can’t discount the fact that she continues to defy the odds by winning 19 consecutive races with a style that invites failure.

I venture to guess that Zenyatta is the only horse in the country who would have run down St Trinians, a VERY talented mare who was getting nine pounds from the winner, in the stretch of the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 13.

I also don’t think there’s another horse in the country who would have caught Switch when the John Sadler-trained filly opened a three-length lead in the stretch of the Lady’s Secret Stakes during the Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meet on Oct. 2.

Yes, John Shirreffs is right. If Zenyatta’s career ends without a Horse of the Year trophy, it will be one of the greatest injustices in the history of the sport.

Makes me recall what Mike Smith said after last fall’s Breeders’ Cup, when Zenyatta became the first female to win the Classic and the veteran jockey was asked if she was Horse of the Year.

“She’s my Horse of the Decade,” Smith said.

Amen.

Ancient Title Stakes loaded with class

Today’s $250,000 Grade 1 Ancient Title Stakes at the Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meet, the final local prep for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6, is filled with some of the best sprinters in the country.

I believe four horses — E Z’s Gentleman, Cost of Freedom, Smiling Tiger or Dancing in Silks — are capable of winning the $150,000 top prize and stamping themselves as one of the horses to beat in Louisville.

All four are Grade 1 sprint winners, and Cost of Freedom and Smiling Tiger both have the ability to go gate to wire. The former, who lost a four-horse photo finish in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint and finished third, also can lay just off the pace.

Dancing in Silks, who won the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a nose at boxcar odds of 25-1, will probably be laying third or fourth in the early going of the six-furlong sprint, and E Z’s Gentleman will be right alongside him.

They all have triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, all four have scored victories over Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track and they all have solid winning percentages.

Here’s how I handicap the race, with horses listed in predicted order of finish:

Cost of Freedom — Quinonez gets another chance to shine in graded stakes
E Z’s Gentleman — Switches to Baffert’s main man, Martin Garcia
Dancing in Silks — Needs to run well to earn trip back to Louisville
Smiling Tiger — Lone 3-year-old in the race threat to wire the field

Good luck today!

Shame on me!!

I am not too big to take the heat and accept blame when I’m at fault.
My blog I wrote yesterday was written within minutes of the Hollywood Park cancellation. I should have waited longer for all the facts before venting over my distaste for synthetics.
My apologies to Hollywood Park.
If anyone wants to read the true story, please consult the article I wrote that appeared in one of today’s Los Angeles Newspaper Group publications.
All that being said, I continue to strongly believe that synthetic race tracks are no good and traditional safe, well-maintained dirt surfaces are the way to go.

Mitchell could be looking at first Derby horse

Owner Ahmed Zayat finished second with Pioneerof the Nile in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and didn’t even get to the 2010 Run for the Roses when early favorite Eskendereya was injured in late April and didn’t run. He had won the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial by a combined 18 1/4 lengths before his injury.

Mike Mitchell has been training horses for 36 years and has never started a horse in the Derby.

So along comes a 2-year-old colt named Jaycito, who last weekend broke his maiden with a one-length victory in the $250,000 Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes during the Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meet. He raced four-wide practically the whole way and still outran even-money favorite J P’s Gusto to the wire in the 1 1/16-mile race.

So you’d assume it’s on to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6, right?

Well, not so fast. It seems Zayat and Mitchell have their eyes on a bigger prize.

“The ultimate race we want to run in is the Derby,” Mitchell said in the winner’s circle last Saturday. “If everything is good and the boss (Zayat) is good, we’re going to shoot for the Breeders’ Cup race. But if not, we want to have him ready for the Derby. The horse will tell us.”

What the son of Victory Gallop told Zayat and Mitchell in the Norfolk was that they have a legitimate Derby contender. After running second in his six-furlong bow on Aug. 21 at Del Mar, he broke poorly and had a wide trip in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 8 while finishing second behind J P’s Gusto.

But the colt was just getting started.

“We just always thought he was a two-turn horse,” Mitchell said. “He just looks like he’s begging for two turns. He can run a mile and a quarter. I mean, he can run far. But he’s going to get better with age, too.”

Mitchell did not have a problem with the fact jockey Mike Smith had Jaycito about four-wide virtually the entire way in the Norfolk.

“He’s out of trouble, he’s not going to get stopped,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t give (Smith) any instructions. I didn’t tell him to ride him like he does Zenyatta or anything like that, but he was out of trouble.”

Said Smith: “He seems like he can get even better. He’s still got some baby fat on him and he’s still growing, getting stronger every day. He’s still a little green about running, but he’s full of talent.”

Talented enough to have Mitchell thinking Kentucky Derby seven months before the horses load into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

Ho hum: Just another nail-biter for Zenyatta

Trainer John Sadler came pretty close to being the most unpopular person at Hollywood Park on Saturday. Of course, if Alonso Quinonez had held on aboard Switch and denied Zenyatta her 19th consecutive victory, the 26-year-old native of Sinaloa, Mexico would have been a close second.

Switch led Zenyatta by two lengths at the eighth pole in the Lady’s Secret Stakes and by a little more than a length at the sixteenth pole before the champion mare decided it was time to get to business and keep her unbeaten record intact.

Zenyatta picked it up and ran the final sixteenth of a mile in less than six seconds, posting a half-length victory over the game Switch, just the latest in a long line of race horses that have finished second to the Queen.

“It was pretty exciting,” Sadler said immediately afterward. “I’ve been tip-toeing around the barn all morning, saying, ‘I know we’re going to give them a scare.’ I’m just very, very proud of my horse. To run second to the best horse in the world and one of the greats of all time is huge.”

Quinonez thought he was sitting on the winner at the eighth pole.

“Once she made the lead, I didn’t think anybody could catch me,” he said. “I couldn’t see Zenyatta coming because I was so into riding my horse. When she was next to me, my filly switched leads to the left. We lost, but it was exciting.”

Quinonez should have known what was coming.

Eighteen times previous to Saturday, Zenyatta had been confronted with a similar chore — catch the leaders in the stretch. She’s done it easier at times, but jockey Mike Smith was confident she’d somehow find a way to pull out another victory.

What people don’t understand is that horses the likes of Switch and St Trinians, whom Zenyatta ran down in the stretch to win the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 13, are very talented race horses that would have won if racing against any other mare except for Zenyatta.

“Until the wire comes … she’s got that ability to dig down,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “Her heart must be huge. She can always dig down and find a little more. She never gives up.

“God made her very special, and we’re just enjoying it.”

Smith marvels at the job Shirreffs has done with the daughter of Street Cry.

“I mean, look at her,” Smith said. “Thirty-three months and she’s still running this way. That’s incredible. No one’s ever done this.”

Zenyatta is still running this way because Shirreffs and her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, have done right by the horse. They have not overly campaigned her, choosing to take the route that best prepares her for the big prize each year — the Breeders’ Cup.

Time and again the Zenyatta camp has been criticized for not taking more chances with her, for not taking on the boys more often in California and for choosing not to fly her around the country.

Jerry Moss was asked after this year’s Lady’s Secret if the connections had considered running Zenyatta against the males in the Goodwood Stakes on Saturday to prepare her for a return run against males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.

“No, because we want to save her up a little bit,” he said. “She’ll run against the boys in four or five weeks, but we’re trying to save as much energy as we can because she is a 6 year old, she does weigh over 1,200 pounds and we’ve got to be cognizant of all that.”

There’s an old saying in this game — if you’re good to the horse, the horse will be good to you.

Shirreffs and the Mosses have been good to Zenyatta, and in turn she’s been very, very good not only to them, but to the sport as well.

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Rachel’s retirement should be a happy time

News of Rachel Alexandra’s retirement this week should be met with applause, not because she won’t race anymore but because she turned in one of the most — if not THE most — spectacular 3-year-old seasons a filly has ever enjoyed and that she is ending her career healthy and able to head off to the breeding shed to hopefully produce foals that will thrill a horse racing nation much like Rachel thrilled all of us in 2009.

This isn’t about Zenyatta vs. Rachel anymore. Sure, there are some Zenyatta zealots out there who are bragging today and yelling about how Rachel’s retirement just proves that their heroine was the superior race horse all along. Just as there would be Rachel Alexandra fanatics doing the same thing if the horse shoe was on the other foot.

But that’s just petty jealousy. I truly want to believe that the majority of the industry — fans and horsemen alike — appreciated and enjoyed watching both of these tremendous female athletes perform their amazing feats. And I think for the most part they did, save the few on both sides who refused to give the other their due.

The question so many are asking today is why was Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, not as dominant in 2010 as she was a year ago?

One theory being thrown around out there is that she peaked in 2009. Many fillies who enjoyed brilliant 2-year-old campaigns — Halfbridled and Stardom Bound are two that immediately come to mind — couldn’t carry their 2-year-old form into their 3-year-old seasons.

The most popular theory is that Rachel Alexandra’s hard 2009 campaign was just too rigid for her to maintain her brilliance past her 3-year-old campaign.

Trainer Shug McGaughey belongs to the latter camp, telling racing writers on a NTRA national teleconference this week only hours before Rachel’s retirement was announced that it only makes sense that racing against the boys three times might have drained her.

“She had a tough campaign as a 3-year-old,” McGaughey said. “I mean, Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen, they bought her and they laid it on the line. My hat’s off to ‘em, running in the Preakness, the Haskell and then coming back and running her at Saratoga in the Woodward. That was a tough campaign, but it sure was great for racing and it captured everybody’s (attention).

“Did it take a little bit out of her? Maybe it did, ya know? She’s been beaten three times this year and hard campaigns are hard on horses, but she’s still a fabulous filly.”

Zenyatta’s regular rider, Mike Smith, is not one who gloated when Rachel Alexandra would lose a race. Asked this week about his thoughts when Rachel Alexandra was run down by Persistently in the final stages of the Personal Ensign at Saratoga in what turned out to be the final race of her stellar career, Smith was his usual classy self.

“I was sad,” he said. “I’m actually a Rachel fan myself, but she had a tough campaign last year and I don’t know if it was showing just a little bit or not, but again she ran a big race that day, she ran awfully fast, and never just threw the towel in. She fought until the end.”

It’s always sad when horse racing loses one of its superstars to retirement, but we’ll always have the memories of the Medaglia d’Oro filly winning the Preakness by 20 lengths and the Mother Goose by 19. We’ll always be able to recall when she held off a hard-charging Macho Again and beat older males in the Woodward.

So now it’s off to the breeding shed for a future booking with Curlin, the 2008 Horse of the Year, and it will be interesting to see if they can produce a colt or filly with anywhere near the brillance they both displayed on the race track.

One thing’s for certain — they’ll both have plenty to brag to the other about.