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Zenyatta trying to secure spot among all-time greats

Her legion of pink-clad fans call her the greatest filly of all-time and among the best race horses ever.

Her critics believe she’s an overhyped synthetic-track specialist without the credentials to join the pantheon of racing’s all-time greats.

Undefeated Zenyatta can secure her legacy when she tries to race into history in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

From the pari-mutuel windows to living rooms of casual horse fans, the 6-year-old super-mare, who is 19 for 19, will be the overwhelming favorite to beat the boys again in North America’s richest race.

“It’s the first Classic ever,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said, “that everybody’s going to be rooting for one horse.”

But how good is she?

In many ways, America’s favorite horse can silence her critics when she faces 11 of the best male runners in the U.S. in the 1- 1/4-mile race. Perhaps no horse in recent memory has polarized fans as much as the huge, dark bay mare with the unblemished record and crowd-pleasing antics.

Blogs and message boards are full of heated words on Zenyatta’s all-time great merits with impassioned arguments from both sides.

Tom LaMarra, news editor for The Blood-Horse, a national thoroughbred magazine and website, believes Zenyatta’s place in history is secure.

“If she were to lose in the Classic — which I think is quite possible because it’s an extremely strong field — I don’t think it hurts her reputation at all,” he said. “If she throws in a clunker, she throws in a clunker. But you can’t take away the fact that she won 19 in a row.”

Zenyatta, the 8-5 morning-line favorite, can join Tiznow as the only two-time winner of the BC Classic. She would retire with a 20-0 record and place herself firmly among the best ever.

“It’ll stamp her,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “If she whips them twice in a row in the Classic on two different surfaces, I would have to say you’d have to mention her with the Spectacular Bids and Secretariat and stuff.”

But Zenyatta’s detractors aren’t ready to anoint her as one of the best fillies ever — joining the likes of Ruffian or Personal Ensign — much less the greatest race horse of all-time.

They point to her success on California’s synthetic surfaces, where she won 17 of her 19 races; the tendency of her connections to race her against less-than-stellar competition; her soft 2010 schedule and, notably, a career in which she never has run against the boys on dirt and owns only one victory over male horses.

That victory, of course, came in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic when she went from last to first on Santa Anita’s synthetic surface to become the first female to win the race.

This time, the Classic will be on dirt, and the 12-horse field appears to be noticeably tougher than last year.

Some of Zenyatta’s foes include Preakness Stakes winner Lookin At Lucky, Whitney Handicap winner Blame, Jockey Gold Cup winner Haynesfield and Woodward Stakes winner Quality Road.

“If everybody shows up, it’s going to be a tremendous classic,” said Baffert, who will saddle Lookin At Lucky. “We all want to win, but, you know, we don’t mind getting beat by (Zenyatta).”

Since winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year as the 5-2 favorite, Zenyatta has won five Grade I races — all against fillies and mares — including the Apple Blossom on the dirt at Oaklawn Park on April 9 and the Lady’s Secret at Oak Tree by one-half length Oct. 2 in her last start.

Critics say Zenyatta, the daughter of Street Cry, simply isn’t fast enough. The Apple Blossom victory earned her a Beyer Speed Figure of 95. By comparison, Blame ran a 111 in the Whitney, Haynesfield ran a 107 in his last start, Lookin At Lucky a 103 and Quality Road a 106.

Zenyatta has never won by more than 4 1/2 lengths — both of her dirt starts were the largest margins of victory — but opposing trainers believe that’s a positive trait.

“She’s a really smart mare,” Baffert said. “She knows where the wire is. It’s almost like a game to her. She’s like a killer whale playing with seals.”

But there wasn’t a single Grade I winner among her defeated rivals this year. Her connections — owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs — never shipped her to New York or Kentucky to face the boys in the toughest races of the year.

Jockey Mike Smith, who has won all three legs of the Triple Crown, said Zenyatta is the best horse he’s ever ridden. Zenyatta trainer John Shirreffs said, win or lose Saturday, his star mare’s legacy should be secured. He said it would be a “real slap in the face” if she isn’t named the Horse of the Year regardless of what happens in the 11th race at Churchill Downs on Saturday. (Filly Rachel Alexandra, who won three Grade I races against the boys last year, beat Zenyatta for 2009 Horse of the Year in a 130-99 vote).

For sure, Zenyatta has sparked interest in the sport. Race days in California when she ran turned into Pink parties with her mob of fans, and her pre- and post-race antics, known as the Zenyatta Strut, show the personality of the horse.

“Her legacy is going to be how she changed the perception and how she engaged the fans with race horses,” Shirreffs said. “She’s brought a lot of people into racing and enjoying racing that never really knew much about racing.”

Additional Information:

Grupp’s picks

Here are Trib reporter John Grupp’s picks for today’s Breeders’ Cup races.

Marathon: 1. Alcomo • Brazilian runner loves the distance. 2. Awesome Gem. 3. A.U. Miner.

Juvenile Fillies Turf: 1. Winter Memories • Crushed Grade 3 field in last start. 2. New Normal. 3. More Than Real.

Filly and Mare Sprint: 1. Sara Louise • She beat Rachel Alexandra in ’08. 2. Secret Gypsy. 3. Dubai Majesty.

Juvenile Fillies: 1. R Heat Lightning • Todd Pletcher trainee is the one to beat. 2. Awesome Feather. 3. A Z Warrior.

Filly and Mare Turf: 1. Midday • European shipper is clear the best. 2. Plumania. 3. Red Desire.

Ladies Classic: 1. Life At Ten • Should get great trip under John Velazquez. 2. Blind Luck. 3. Unrivaled Belle.

Additional Information:

Breeders’ Cup

Today-Saturday, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

Surface: Dirt

Featured race: Breeders’ Cup Classic, 6:15 p.m. Saturday

TV: Today • 4 to 8 p.m., ESPN2; Saturday • 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., ABC, 3:30 to 7 p.m., ESPN


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