Celebrated Zenyatta will have to earn Breeders' Cup Classic victory

Some reasoned that because Zenyatta won last year's Breeders' Cup Classic she also deserved Horse of the Year honors. I was curious if the data supported that assertion. She will be favored again to repeat her stirring win in the Classic.

In 26 years, 11 Classic winners (42 percent) were named Horse of the Year. The stats drop over the past 17 years, when only six (35 percent) won the Horse of the Year vote. I know the dynamics change each year, but it shows that what happened to Zenyatta in 2009 was not out of line within historical context.

The question will be moot if Zenyatta wins the Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6. It would be a record 10th consecutive Grade I win, giving her an undefeated 20-race career. Perfection personified.

The scary notion would be if Zenyatta loses to one of the top contenders, such as Blame, Lookin At Lucky or Quality Road. Those three have good enough resumes to wrestle away the title from the queen. That could make Zenyatta the Rodney Dangerfield of American racing as the best horse never to win a Horse of the Year crown.

It could happen. The speed figure ratings I have seen show Zenyatta as a contender but not the fastest horse. She does have a will to win like no other. But this year's Classic field looks much stronger than last year's.

The Churchill main track is dirt. Zenyatta has two solid wins at Oaklawn Park in her only dirt tries. Trainer Ron Ellis has said on TVG that he thinks Zenyatta is 10 lengths faster on dirt. He might be right, but no one knows. His guess is based on her magnificent, ground-eating stride. However, if Ellis is wrong, then Zenyatta could be in deep water for the first time.

I will be rooting for Zenyatta to win the Classic. A one-two punch of the "Secretariat" movie and a Zenyatta win is good for the sport. But it's no given it will happen.

When Smarty Jones lost the 2004 Belmont Stakes and his quest for the Triple Crown, New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden called it "racing's greatest moment." To paraphrase, Rhoden wrote that, as much as horse racing wanted a Triple Crown champion, no one was giving Smarty Jones the race. His opponents didn't concede an inch.

Zenyatta will be facing similar circumstances in the Classic. As much as the sport wants her to win, she must earn it.

Richard Eng's horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.