On paper, Zenyatta has no chance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. She’s too slow, and she has spent much of year narrowly beating ordinary fillies and mares. Really tough, fast males like Blame, Quality Road and Lookin at Lucky should thrash her. As the favorite in the Classic, she could well be the biggest underlay in Breeders’ Cup history.
All of which I am going to ignore. I’m picking her.
I might be guilty of drinking the Kool-Aid or believing in fairytales, but sometimes you just have to, well, believe. In this case, that means having faith in a great horse who has a tremendous will to win and always finds a way. Always.
That’s the intangible Zenyatta brings to the table, and it’s bigger than Beyer figures, company lines and everything else her critics might judge her on. She just wins. You cannot argue with 19 straight, no matter how weak some of the fields she has been facing might have been. It is an historic accomplishment, something no other top-level horse has done. Corny as it might sound, she has a big heart, refuses to lose, knows where the wire is, whatever. In the Classic, that’s what is going to get her to the finish line first.
Having said that, she’s going to have to be better than she has ever been. On paper, a repeat of her race in the 2009 Classic probably won’t be enough. That day, she beat a grass horse, albeit a good one, in Gio Ponti, and another grass horse in European shipper Twice Over. And she did so by just a length. The horses she is set to face in 2010 are much better.
I do not agree with those who are discounting Zenyatta’s chances as she comes into the Classic, but I understand where they are coming from. The coddling of the mare was taken to an extreme this year; she beat nothing but cupcakes. She hasn’t defeated a single Grade 1 winner all year, and the five horses who finished second behind her are a combined 8-for-38 on the year. Her best Beyer figure in 2010 is a 103. There are seven horses among those pre-entered for the Classic who have run faster numbers this year.
As much as I might like her … she has to win the Classic to deserve Horse of the Year, especially if Blame, Quality Road or Lookin at Lucky wins. To suggest she deserves the title as some sort of lifetime achievement award is nonsense. Her 14 starts prior to 2010 have no bearing on this, and her 2010 campaign thus far hasn’t been anything close to Horse of the Year-worthy. It would have been a lot different had owner Jerry Moss decided to challenge her some this year and had she won races like the Pacific Classic or Hollywood Gold Cup. He should have asked more of her; he didn’t.
Still, it will be a moot point when Zenyatta passes 10 horses inside the final two furlongs and wins by a nose over Lookin at Lucky in what will be the most thrilling Breeders’ Cup Classic in history. I think it’s going to happen. She’s an extraordinary talent, the type of horse that doesn’t come along more than once in a great while. When it comes down to it, that’s what’s going to matter.
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I don’t know who the best trainer in the Breeders’ Cup is, but I can tell you who’s the smartest. Michelle Nihei, who trains Marathon entrant Prince Will I Am, isn’t exactly your typical trainer. Before coming onto the racetrack in 2001, Nihei earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience (the scientific study of the nervous system) from the University of Kentucky and was a member of the junior faculty at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. She spent 4½ years at Johns Hopkins, where she worked in research and did clinical trials.
Although she was working in a prestigious field and had put in countless hours to get where she was, she knew she would be happier if she worked with horses, something she had always enjoyed while growing up in Canada.
“At some level, there was disillusionment,” she said two summers ago. “How happy was I at Hopkins? Politics was starting to become involved, and I was naïve. You think success will come your way on merit alone, but politics play a part, and I don’t think I really understood that. I truly wasn’t as happy doing that as I thought I’d be.”
Nihei eventually caught the eye of Todd Pletcher, who hired her as an assistant. She has been on her own a little less than three years and will be making her first start in the Breeders’ Cup.
Originally Posted on ESPN