Can Zenyatta sign off one of the greatest careers in North American racing history with a second win the Breeders' Cup Classic, or is there something else in the field waiting to spoil the party?
If there's one reason above all others to side against Zenyatta in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic, then it's probably the fact that this year's race is taking place at Churchill Downs, on a traditional dirt surface as opposed to the pro-ride track at Santa Anita, the venue for the two most recent Breeders' Cups.
In her unbeaten nineteen-race career, Zenyatta has run just twice on a dirt track, on both occasions in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. She first ran at Oaklwan in April 2008, taking on a field of five other fillies and mares, including the 2007 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch, and ran out the four-and-a-half length winner, running to a Timeform rating of 124. After missing the race in 2009, she ran again in the Apple Blossom this year, and needed to run to just 116 to land odds of 20/1-on. The point worth making is that both times Zenyatta has run on dirt she has met a level of opposition significantly inferior to that which she will encounter in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic, and hasn't needed to produce form on the same level as the pick of her efforts on synthetic surfaces.
In order to win this year's Classic Zenyatta will probably need to be as effective on dirt as she is on synthetics, and that is at the very least unproven for now. All that said, it needs remembering that Zenyatta is still unbeaten, and she has run past everything that has been put in front of her, more often than not with ears pricked, and, to an extent, the doubts about the surface are reflected in the price - a by-no-means stingy 4.2 at the time of writing.
Zenyatta's main challenger on form in the book is Quality Road, who is the top male older horse in the USA judged on his exploits this year, particularly his thirteen-length win in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in February, putting up what was, by several measures, one of the best performances of the decade in North America.
Quality Road lost no caste in defeat when beaten a head by Blame, in concession of 5 lb, in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on his penultimate outing, and got back to winning ways when taking a below-par renewal of the Woodward Stakes there last time, not needing to run within 10 lb of his best form. Quality Road is clearly a top-class performer, but there are reasons to doubt his claims for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Firstly, it needs remembering that he was withdrawn after getting very unruly at the stalls prior to the Classic last year, so there must be some doubts as to his ability to handle the commotion of the day. Secondly, and more pertinently, the balance of his form suggests that Quality Road is a better horse at eight or nine furlongs than he is at a mile and a quarter. He has shown himself capable of very smart form at a mile and a quarter, but that lags half a stone behind his best efforts over shorter, and wouldn't normally be good enough to take a Breeders' Cup Classic.
Perhaps more of a threat to Zenyatta will come from the top US-trained three-year-old Lookin At Lucky, who is arguably unfortunate not to be undefeated as well. Lookin At Lucky's three reverses all came at the top level - in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, when getting much the worst trip of the principals, and when meeting trouble in both this year's Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Those runs aside, Looking At Lucky has confirmed himself a tough, genuine and reliable colt and will arrive at Churchill Downs this time around on the back of three successive wins, in the Preakness Stakes, the Haskell Invitational and the Indiana Derby. It was in the Haskell that Looking At Lucky put up his very best performance so far, running to a Timeform rating of 127 when beating a good field that included the likes of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. Neither trip nor surface are problematic for Lookin At Lucky, and the feeling is that he may be capable of better performance still. He has very solid claims, bidding to give trainer Bob Baffert his first win in the race
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