by John Piassek
“THE ZENYATTA EFFECT” ON RACING
Here is a little-known fact: every time a trainer says that their star horse is “training up” to a big race, while bypassing another big race in the process, a kitten dies. This is the 100% truth.
This Saturday, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park drew a very uninspired field of six, which of course led to much complaining on social media. Notably, the two top older horses on the east coast, Met Mile and Whitney winner Frosted and Brooklyn and Woodward winner Shaman Ghost, are both absent. Both are healthy, but, in the words of their trainers, they have elected to “train up” to the Breeders’ Cup Classic instead. So rather than a solid field of eight, featuring the winners of every big older horse race in New York this season, we’re left with a rather blah bunch. Never mind that in the cases of both horses, a Gold Cup win would boost their Eclipse Award stock and breeding value if something goes wrong on Breeders’ Cup day. Better to train up, assuredly.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, the great mare Beholder lost her third race in a row, finishing second to Stellar Wind in the Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita. It’s not like she had run badly in any of those races; she was a good third against males in the Pacific Classic, and narrowly lost to Stellar Wind in the Clement Hirsch. Yet, many keyboard warriors are calling for her retirement, or for her to pass up a matchup with Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, all because she lost a few times.
Clearly, trainers being scared to actually run their horses, coupled with the outcry if a big horse loses, leads to some very boring racing. It makes one wonder: how did racing get to this point? After all, it’s much more exciting to see the best take on the best, rather than not run them more than a few times a year, out of a fear that they’ll lose.
I think that it can be traced back to one horse: Zenyatta.
Well, not just Zenyatta. Rachel Alexandra, too.
A refresher: between 2007 and 2010, Zenyatta set the racing world on fire, winning nineteen consecutive races out in California and Arkansas, including a bevy of grade 1 races, and two Breeders’ Cup events. The more she won, the more popular she became, with fans coming by the thousands to see her race in Southern California. Now, with all due respect to Zenyatta, a lot of those fields that she beat in those races were comprised of tomato cans, and the big mare probably could have beaten them if she had fallen down multiple times. Nevertheless, Zenyatta was being hailed as an all-time great, and possible savior of mankind, because she kept winning.
Meanwhile, Rachel Alexandra dominated her 2009 three-year-old campaign, with eight stakes wins, five grade ones, and three wins against males. It was a history-making season, one that rightfully earned her Horse of the Year honors. As such, expectations were high for her going into her four-year-old year.
Now, she did not run badly in any of her five races. True, she lost three of those starts, but it wasn’t like they were awful. In her first loss, the New Orleans Ladies Stakes, it was her first race in more than six months, and there was talk that she had been rushed back too quickly from a year-end vacation. Next out, she was second in the La Troienne Stakes to Unrivaled Belle, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. After two wins, she was second in the Personal Ensign Stakes, after dueling multiple grade 1 winner Life at Ten into submission.
Even though she wasn’t as good at four as she was at three, Rachel was still a top-class filly who would’ve been a very strong contender in the Beldame Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Yet, compared to Zenyatta, she looked small. After all, Zenyatta was BETTER, because all she did was WIN. Partly because of this, Rachel was retired in late September, before she could get her chance at redemption in the fall races. Many racing fans moaned the decline in form that led to her losing, while cheering on Zenyatta as she beat another mediocre bunch in California that same week.
I think that these events marked a shift in the way owners and trainers think about their horses. Of course, no one ever liked to lose a race. But people realized that it wasn’t the end of the world if their horses lost sometimes. Consider Skip Away in 1997. He raced eleven times that year, and won only four of them. Five times, he finished second. Yet, his owners never gave up on him, and he went on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic en route to an Eclipse Award. Going into the Gold Cup, he had lost seven stakes in 1997. However, he ran really well in all of them, never missing the board. Miraculously, no one held it against him.
There’s plenty of other examples from fairly recent history. Affirmed lost the first two starts of his 1979 season, but rebounded to win the Strub Stakes in his third race of the year. He went on to win six out of the ten richest races in American racing at the time. Holy Bull finished twelfth as the Kentucky Derby favorite in 1994. Nowadays, he’d probably be turned out for the summer, even if nothing was wrong with him, and return in some listed stakes at Belmont in October or something like that. Instead, he swept his way through the rest of the year, winning four grade 1 races.
While some trainers and owners thought uber-conservatively before Zenyatta, her career made thinking like that more mainstream. Now, trainers and owners act as if they’re afraid to lose, and fans will quickly jump ship off a horse if they don’t win, no matter how well they ran. This, of course, is bad for the game.
Consider the aforementioned Frosted. After his Whitney score, Godolphin and Kieran McLaughlin weren’t sure if Frosted would even race again before the Breeders’ Cup, which would have him going into the race off a 90-day layoff. The connections eventually decided to run him in the Woodward Stakes, where he was a heavy favorite. No thanks to a questionable ride by Joel Rosario, Frosted finished third by a head: a disappointing outcome, but certainly not one to go into a panic about.
Yet, many race fans, some of whom were declaring Frosted the best horse ever a month ago, immeadiately labeled him as washed up, overrated, etc. Now, there is doubt over whether or not Frosted will even run in the Classic, or if he will go to the much easier Dirt Mile. While his best career race came at a mile (albeit a one-turn one), he’s run very well at longer distances, too. And as one of the top older horses in the country, he belongs in the more prestigious Classic. Another showdown with California Chrome would be a great one.
Of course, this thinking isn’t exclusive to Frosted. Even though Dortmund has run well against California Chrome this year, he, too, should be in the Dirt Mile, according to the Monday morning quarterbacks. In fact, just about every major male dirt horse except California Chrome has been recommended for the Dirt Mile, so that they don’t have a chance of losing.
This is the same thinking that drives the “training up” mentality. As noted, Shaman Ghost would have an excellent chance at winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup. However, he may lose that race. And if he lost that race, he wouldn’t belong in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, because he’s a loser. And even if he won the Gold Cup, it may somehow impact his ability to win the Classic. It should be clear to many fans that, if Shaman Ghost lost the Classic, it would probably be because California Chrome is just that much better than him, and not because Shaman Ghost raced twice in the previous sixty days.
The “Zenyatta mentality” is really bad for growing racing as a sport, and creates some really bad betting races. If horses are constantly dodging spots against each other, and looking for cakewalks, it’s not very exciting. It would be like if the best MLB pitchers kept skipping starts against the best teams, and only pitched once every few weeks or so against the easiest lineups possible.
Plus, without a lot of horses in each race, the stakes become very unappetizing betting affairs. If Frosted and Shaman Ghost had showed up in the Gold Cup, there’d be eight horses, rather than six. As far as odds and pool sizes go, it’s a lot of money lost for the track.
Unfortunately, short of dragging the horses out of their stalls, there isn’t much tracks can do about the Zenyatta effect. For the most part, all fans can do is sit back, sigh, and wonder what would happen if owners and trainers weren’t afraid to take a risk.
— John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.