Breeders Cup - Is Zenyatta the Best Female Horse of all Time?

The brilliant 5 year old mare Zenyatta, sired by Street Cry and bought for $60,000 at the 2005 Keeneland September Sale, has already won almost $2.775 million and will be going for her 14th victory in a row.

Zenyatta is undefeated and has won an amazing 7 Grade I victories.  She is regarded by most horse racing fans as one of the greatest female horses to ever run but the debate is still out on whether or not she is the greatest.

Before getting into why Zenyatta has more work to do before being considered as a horse on par with Ruffian or even Rachel Alexandra, let’s take a look at some of those gaudy stats so that we can understand why Zenyatta is held at such high regard.

Zenyatta has never tasted defeat.  Her trainer, John Shirreffs, has spotted her brilliantly, keeping her Southern California and running her over the plastic surfaces that she apparently loves.  With very little changes to her schedule, for two straight years Zenyatta has prepped for her Breeders’ Cup race by running in and winning the Vanity, Clement L. Hirsch and Lady’s Secret, Shirreff’s has been able to keep Zenyatta fresh and happy.  13 for 13 lifetime with earnings of $2,774,580 is no easy task yet Zenyatta has done it.  She’s also done it with a style that more often than not leads to disaster.  Zenyatta is a closer and like all closers her fate should be determined in part by the pace of a race, but for Zenyatta that handicapping truth isn't a truth at all.
The huge mare can close into a 46 and change half or a 49 and change half.  She can close into a 1:10 and change ¾ pace or a 1:12 and change ¾ pace.  No matter what any horse does in front of her, Zenyatta seems to find a way to catch the other horse, but is this because Zenyatta is that good or because she has faced the same competition over and over?

That’s the question, of course, heading into the 2009 Breeders’ Cup where Zenyatta will either run in the Ladies’ Classic or the Classic against males.  Zenyatta has never run against males before, but since her biggest competition for the title greatest filly and mare of all time, Rachel Alexandra, has beaten males on numerous occasions, Shirreff’s and Zenyatta’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jerome S. Moss, are seriously debating taking on the males in the richest horse race in the United States, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

How would Zenyatta fair against horses like Summer Bird and Aidan O’Brien’s terrific Rip Van Winkle?  Probably not every well.  If speed ratings are any indication, then Zenyatta had better stick with the Ladies’ Classic if she hopes to stay undefeated.

Summer Bird is no joke having been beaten only by Rachel Alexandra in his last three races.  The progeny of Birdstone was brilliant in the Belmont Stakes, brilliant in the Travers and brilliant in the Haskell Invitational where he finished 2nd to Rachel Alexandra.

He might be one of the best male three year olds to come around in a long time and Zenyatta, as good as she has been, won’t have much of a shot against him should he take to the Pro-Ride surface.

There is another issue that Zenyatta might have in the Classic.  She hasn’t run against the best of her kind, female horses, much less against the best male horses on the planet.  Without a start against Rachel Alexandra, Icon Project, her half sister Seventh Street or the fantastic Careless Jewel, Zenyatta has yet to prove that she is the best in 2009 much less of all time.

She might face those fillies and mares in the Ladies’ Classic should her owners and Shirreff’s decide to keep her with the gals.  If she were to win that race, then she no doubt would go down as one of the best female horses to ever run on a racetrack.

But she won’t be considered the best.  In order to do that, the least she could do would be to beat Summer Bird in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  If she did that her connections could then at least claim that Rachel Alexandra ducked them.  Right now, it looks like Shirreff’s and Moss have been protecting their number one horse.

It’s time to take a risk with this brilliant horse because that’s the only way that Zenyatta could even be considered on par with Ruffian or Rachel Alexandra.  Entering the Breeders’ Cup Classic is just that kind of risk.