It’s Post Time by Jon White: Zenyatta’s Epic Breeders’ Cup Classic Win Revisited

With the Breeders’ Cup returning to Santa Anita Park this year on Nov. 1-2, it’s perfectly understandable if some folks might think back to a Breeders’ Cup performance at that Southern California track in 2009.

It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Zenyatta’s thriller of a victory in the BC Classic at Santa Anita.

Owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss and trained John Shirreffs, Zenyatta took a 13-0 career record into the 2009 BC Classic, a race in which she was trying to make Breeders’ Cup history.

Would she become the first female to win the BC Classic?

Would she become the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races?

The answers to those two questions would be “yes” and “yes.”

In 2008, also at Santa Anita, Zenyatta took the BC Distaff (known at that time as the BC Ladies’ Classic).

In the 2009 BC Classic, Zenyatta was sent away as the 5-2 favorite against 11 male opponents. Rip Van Winkle was the second choice at 3-1, followed by Summer Bird at 6-1 and Twice Over at 9-1. All others were 11-1 or higher.

Zenyatta’s fan club had grown to a humongous size by the time of the 2009 BC Classic. I said on HRTV that if Zenyatta did become the first filly or mare to win the BC Classic, no doubt the crowd would go wild.

Just a few minutes before the field for the 2009 BC Classic was sent on its way, my shift on HRTV ended. The HRTV set was located in the walking ring area. I scurried to the other side of the grandstand in order to watch the race. Despite it being practically wall-to-wall people in front of the grandstand, I managed to find a spot to stand near the sixteenth pole.

Mike Smith rode Zenyatta, as usual. And Zenyatta lacked early speed, also as usual. She was at the back of the pack in the run down the stretch the first time.

“Zenyatta is dead last. Zenyatta is dead last early,” track announcer Trevor Denman said during his call of the race.

Midway down the backstretch, Zenyatta had moved out of last place but still was far back. She was racing in front of only 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

“Zenyatta is still a good 10, 11 off the leaders, and then it’s four back to Mine That Bird,” Denman said at that stage of the race.

Zenyatta began to rally as the field swung into the stretch, but it looked like she had left herself with way too much to do.

“And let’s see. Zenyatta has a lot, a lot of ground to make up. Zenyatta, if she wins this, she’s a super horse. She’s starting to pick them off, though. Zenyatta going to hook to the outside. Meanwhile, it’s Colonel John, Summer Bird in the red cap, but Zenyatta’s come to the outside. Zenyatta coming flying on the grandstand side! Gio Ponti on the inside, Summer Bird is right there. This is un…be…lievable!!! Zenyatta!!! What a performance!!! One we’ll never forget!!! Looked impossible, but it is Zenyatta, still unbeaten under Mike Smith. Gio Ponti second, Summer Bird and then Richard’s Kid. What a dramatic performance, one of the most sensational ever, Zenyatta wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Denman’s call of the 2009 BC Classic served as an excellent example of an announcer rising to the occasion for a big race. One of the finest examples of that, of course, was Chic Anderson’s 1973 Belmont Stakes call. Anderson came up with the exact right phrase at the exact right time. As Secretariat was in the process of opening a huge lead on the far turn, Anderson said Secretariat “is moving like a tremendous machine.” Continuing to run up the score in the stretch, Secretariat won by 31 lengths in what many regard as the greatest performance by a Thoroughbred ever seen at a track in this country.

My father, who passed away in 2018, saw thousands of horse races during his lifetime. He was among those who watched Secretariat’s Belmont on CBS and Zenyatta’s BC Classic on ABC. My father ranked Zenyatta’s BC Classic as the second-greatest thing he had ever seen in horse racing, topped only by Secretariat’s Belmont.

In the 2009 BC Classic, not only did Zenyatta conquer male rivals, she left eight Grade I or Group I winners in her wake. As a reflection of the quality of the vanquished, runner-up Gio Ponti was voted three Eclipse Awards during his career. Summer Bird, who finished third, was voted a 2009 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.

During Zenyatta’s compelling stretch rally in the 2009 BC Classic, the 58,845 in attendance at Santa Anita that day went absolutely bonkers, as I had predicted. While Zenyatta was charging home, the cheers for her were so loud that the sound seemed to reverberate off the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

Standing in the mass of humanity near the sixteenth pole, I will tell you that I was not one of the screamers. I just stood there and watched. I watched as Zenyatta did her thing. But I will admit that I was so overcome with emotion that there were tears in my eyes.

Zenyatta’s 2009 BC Classic is generally regarded as one of the three greatest moments at Santa Anita since it first open its doors in 1934, along with Seabiscuit’s victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap and jockey John Longden’s win aboard George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap.

Seabiscuit lost the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, which at that time was the richest race in the world, by a scant nose. He lost the 1938 renewal by the same narrow margin. And then, in the last start of his storied career, the extremely popular Seabiscuit finally did win the Santa Anita Handicap when he prevailed by 1 1/2 lengths.

As for the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap, Longden announced beforehand that it would be his final race as a jockey. And at the age of 59, Longden certainly ended his illustrious riding career in dramatic fashion. He won the San Juan Capistrano by a nose aboard 6-1 George Royal. With a world record 6,032 victories to his credit from 32,413 mounts, Longden retired as a race-rider and became a successful trainer, saddling Majestic Prince to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1969.

After Zenyatta’s 2009 BC Classic victory, she did not retire. She continued racing in 2010. After compiling a 19-0 record, she lost for the first and only time in her career when she finished second, a head behind Blame, in the 2010 BC Classic at Churchill Downs.

Even though Zenyatta’s perfect record was spoiled in the 2010 BC Classic, it’s widely regarded to be one of the finest performances in defeat in the history of American racing. Many considered it similar to Seattle Slew’s nose loss to Exceller in the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in 1978.

Zenyatta was voted the Eclipse Award as champion older female in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Moreover, after losing out to Rachel Alexandra for the 2009 Horse of the Year title, Zenyatta was voted 2010 Horse of the Year.

One of the greatest female Thoroughbreds of all time, Zenyatta was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.

BC JUVENILE NEXT TARGET FOR DENNIS’ MOMENT

Trainer Dale Romans had been singing the praises of Dennis’ Moment even before the 2-year-old colt raced for the first time.

When Dennis’ Moment kicked off his racing career in a five-furlong maiden special weight contest at Churchill Downs on June 23, he clipped heels and unseated jockey Robby Albarado.

In Dennis’ Moment’s next start, with Miguel Mena in the saddle, the Kentucky-bred son of Tiznow annihilated his rivals. Dennis’ Moment registered a jaw-dropping 19 1/4-length victory in a seven-furlong maiden special weight race at Ellis Park on July 27. He recorded a 97 Beyer Speed Figure. It’s the highest Beyer by a 2-year-old thus far in 2019.

And then last Saturday, Dennis’ Moment made his stakes debut while also racing around two turns for the first time. Backed down to 2-5 favoritism in Churchill’s Grade III Iroquois Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, he lurked in fourth early while rating kindly for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

Equibase’s official Iroquois chart states that Dennis’ Moment “stalked the early pace from the outside of foes, ranged up three wide nearing the lane, took over command once in the stretch, drew clear near the eighth pole while ridden out and was in hand during the final sixteenth.”

From near the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole, the chart says that Dennis’ Moment was “ridden out” by Ortiz. I think that’s accurate. After the colt’s lead had grown to five lengths at the sixteenth pole, he “was in hand during the final sixteenth.” I also think that’s accurate.

But a problem I have with the Iroquois chart provided to drf.com by Equibase is it says “won ridden out.”

“Ridden out” is when a horse is not under a full-out drive, but the jockey is still urging the horse on to some extent.

The purpose of the chart saying Dennis’ Moment “won ridden out” is to provide a description of how he “won” the race.

If Ortiz had continued to ride Dennis’ Moment pretty much the same way in the final sixteenth as he had from the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole, then I would concur with saying the colt “won ridden out.” But that isn’t what happened.

I was a Daily Racing Form chart-caller from 1974-93. I called official Breeders’ Cup charts in 1986 at Santa Anita and in 1987 at Hollywood Park. During the many years that I was a chart-caller, I always felt that it was important to, as much as possible, inform people who did not see the race as to what had occurred in the race. I don’t think saying Dennis’ Moment “won ridden out” is an accurate representation of how the race was won.

If I had called the Iroquois chart last Saturday, I would have made it “won handily.”

“Handily” is when a horse has been taken “in hand,” or is being “geared down,” or is being “eased up,” or is winning “under wraps,” or is winning “with speed to spare.”

Another indication that Dennis’ Moment “won handily” rather than “won ridden out” is what the Equibase chart says in part regarding runner-up Scabbard. The chart says Scabbard “rallied down the lane and gained on a wrapped up winner.”

I totally agree with saying Dennis’ Moment was a “wrapped up winner.” And if Dennis’ Moment was indeed a “wrapped up winner,” then the chart, in my opinion, should say “won handily.”

I think it’s especially important to accurately describe how Dennis’ Moment won the race because his margin of victory, 1 3/4 lengths, is misleading. The margin does not truly reflect Dennis’ Moment’s superiority.

At least the comment that will accompany Dennis’ Moment’s running line for the Iroquois will, in my view, more accurately reflect how he won the race. That comment says “cruised final 1/16th.”

In any case, Daily Racing Form’s Marty McGee reported that Dennis’ Moment will not race again until the Grade I BC Juvenile at Santa Anita in early November, according to Romans.

BEYER FOR IROQUOIS WINNER DESERVES A PLUS

Dennis’ Moment was credited with a 90 Beyer Speed Figure for his Iroquois victory. The manner in which he won has an impact on his Beyer in that the figure would have been higher if he had been permitted by Ortiz to run faster in the final sixteenth.

As I’ve previously written, the Beyers do not take into account how a horse wins a race. The figure is the figure regardless of whether a horse, during the last part of a race, is all out, under a stranglehold, or something in between.

The 90 Beyer for Dennis’ Moment’s Iroquois is yet another example in which I believe it would be much more of a true reflection of the colt’s performance if a + was added to his figure.

I long have been an advocate of adding a + to a Beyer in the rare instances when a horse wins while being far from all out. It also would be helpful to horseplayers if a + was added to a Beyer whenever there is a suspicion that a figure is possibly lower than it should be for any number of reasons, like when circumstances are such that determining the track variant -- a key element in calculating a Beyer -- is problematic.

I felt that American Pharoah should have been assigned a 105+ Beyer Speed Figure when he won the 2015 Arkansas Derby, a 102+ when he won the 2015 Preakness Stakes and a 109+ when he won the 2015 Haskell Invitational. He was far from all out in both the Arkansas Derby and Haskell, while there was difficulty in trying to ascertain the track variant for the Preakness.

If American Pharoah had been asked for his best in the Arkansas Derby and Haskell, he undoubtedly would have run faster. How much faster is impossible to quantify. But if American Pharoah had been allowed by the rider to run faster, the colt’s Beyer Speed Figure then would have been higher for both races.

Dick Jerardi, who for years has been on the team that calculates the Beyer Speed Figures, recognized that American Pharoah’s figures for the Preakness and Haskell did not give him the credit he deserved for those performances.

Jerardi also disclosed that there had been a lack of certainty associated with the 102 Beyer Speed Figure assigned to American Pharoah for the Preakness, which was run on a sloppy track.

“We at Beyer Central explained at the time how much confidence we had in the Preakness Beyer -- not much,” Jerardi wrote. “The one-race monsoon made comparisons with the other races impossible, so it was a one-race variant, never how you want to make numbers. Randy Moss [another person who calculates Beyer Speed Figures] and I thought it could have been a 112. We had our reasons. Frankly, we will never know for sure.”

While American Pharoah was assigned a 109 Beyer for the Haskell, Jerardi speculated how high the figure would have been if the colt trained by Bob Baffert had been asked to run at all in the final furlong.

“I told Baffert right after that that I was certain if the colt had been asked at all in the stretch, he would have gotten a 118,” Jerardi wrote.

Considering that, I think it would have been very appropriate to assign American Pharoah a 109+ instead of a 109 Beyer Speed Figure for the Haskell.

Similarly, I think a 90+ Beyer would give horseplayers a much better idea of how good Dennis’ Moment’s Iroquois performance was instead of a 90.

THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL

No change at the top of the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll this week. The outstanding grass runner Bricks and Mortar once again holds the top spot.

Here is the Top 10 in the NTRA poll for this week:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 363 Bricks and Mortar (29)
2. 316 Midnight Bisou (4)
3. 293 McKinzie (4)
4. 253 Mitole
5. 232 Sistercharlie
6. 86 Catalina Cruiser
7. 83 World of Trouble
8. 76 Code of Honor
9. 73 Elate
10. 70 Imperial Hint

End

It’s Post Time by Jon White: Zenyatta’s Epic Breeders’ Cup Classic Win Revisited

It’s Post Time by Jon White |