Zenyatta fails to catch Blame in Classic thriller

Report: USA, Saturday

Churchill Downs: Breeders` Cup Classic (Grade 1) 1m2f, dirt, 3yo+

IN one of the most thrilling races ever seen at the Breeders` Cup, the great Zenyatta just came up short in the Classic, where she suffered a painful narrow defeat at the hands of Churchill Downs specialist Blame (Al Stall/Garrett Gomez).

The sense of anticlimax was palpable at the home of the Kentucky Derby as the people`s favourite finally lost her unbeaten record on her 20th start - and jockey Mike Smith broke down in the post-race press conference, taking full responsibility for the defeat.

In the Kentucky twilight, the sun set on a brilliant career as Zenyatta - if anything, even more detached at the rear than usual in the early stages - charged at Blame with her customary stretch-devouring drive inside the final furlong.

Blame, though, is a top-class performer in his own right. For the first time in her life, Zenyatta`s power-packed last-to-first was not enough and one of the most celebrated unbeaten records in the history of the sport was lost by a head.

Without wishing any disrespect to a talented winner, sent off a well-fancied 5.2-1 chance, the disappointment in a 72,739 crowd was tangible, despite their having witnessed a race for the ages.

A distraught Mike Smith burst into tears after the race. "It`s my fault - she should have won," said the jockey, who certainly did not stint with his whip in the closing stages.

"I truly believe I was on the best horse today," he said. "If I had to blame anyone I would blame me. It hurts more than I can explain, just because it was my fault."

Specifically, Smith felt he had given the supermare too much to do, even by her own standards.

Racing on dirt for only the third time in her life, the six-year-old was at least six lengths adrift passing the wire for the first time, and fully 20 lengths off a disputed pace at halfway.

A group of fourhorses headed by First Dude and Quality Road scorched about six lengths ahead of the main body of the field, where Blame was prominent.

As the leaders predictably wilted, the four-year-old son of Arch split horses to hit the front a furlong and a half out.

Even-money favourite Zenyatta had started to make ground on the inner rounding the far turn before being switched wide in the stretch ready to run down her rivals.

On this occasion, however, she could not reach her target, and Blame was just in front as the pair drew three-and-a-half lengths clear of third-placed Fly Down.

"It wasn`t very good at all in the beginning," added Smith. "She got away a little slow, she got squeezed out of there. I was just having a rough time of it going underneath the wire the first time.

"She just wasn`t levelling out like I wanted to - the combination of the dirt hitting her in the face was a lot of it. She wasn`t used to that part - it took her a while to get used to it.

"It just left her too much to do," he added. "Maybe I should have done a few things different. She`s just amazing - shemade up a whole lot of ground - to only come up a nose short is a little hard to swallow.

"I just wish I would have been in the race a little earlier because I think the outcome would have certainly been different. I had to put the brakes on at the quarter pole when Quality Road started backing up. I think that cost me the race."

Zenyatta, though, really did lose little in a defeat that may even have embellished her reputation.

"You know, I believe she ranks up there with the greatest of all time," said Smith. "If I`d have won this, you could arguably say she was. To come up a nose short is just - it`s too hard."

Trainer John Shirreffs was gracious in defeat. "I`m just so happy with everything she`s done," he said. "She ran her heart out today. She ran a great race - congratulations to Blame. What are yougonna do?"

Zenyatta was still accorded a tremendous ovation as America`s vanquished sweetheart went past the stands after America`s richest race.

"They were behind her win or lose and she represented themvery well," said Shirreffs. "She ran an excellent race but she just came up a little short."

Owner Jerry Moss added: "I thought she`d get there but she just missed. She was beaten by a good horse. We congratulate Blame and his connections. He beat a superstar - she tried so hard - she`s the greatest."

In the circumstances, the winner was in grave danger of being overlooked - a trifle unfortunate, as Blame is an admirable racehorse in his own right.

Zenyatta`s conqueror was winning his sixth race in his last seven starts, all of them graded stakes including a trio of Grade 1 events. He was also fully proven at Saturday`s venue, having won three times from four previous starts at Churchill Downs.

Even Blame`s connections, though, were talking about Zenyatta. Jockey Garrett Gomez, winning his third Breeders` Cup race this term and his 13th altogether, admitted to "mixed emotions".

He said: "She`s been an ambassador for racing, wonderful for the sport, and there are people who didn`t know about racing that became fans because of her.

"I wish she was still 20/20 at the expense of somebody else but I`m proud to say that we beat her."

Gomez said he knew the gentle giant was running him down in the final furlong. "I just caught her out of the corner of my eye and he just kept finding," he said, adding that he had spoken to Smith after they crossed the line.

"We were trying to figure out who had won - I thought I`d won but she was so far away and she`s so big that she`s not the usual measure of a horse."

New Orleans-born trainer Al Stall, 49, is the primary trainer for Blame`s owners, the Hancock family` legendary Kentucky-based Claiborne farm operation.

Blame`s victory in the $5 million highlight represented a first Breeders` Cup success for Stall, who has about 45 horses in his care split between Kentucky and Louisiana.

"In defeat, Zenyatta didn`t lose anything," he said. "I don`t think you`ll find anyone criticising anything she has ever done, much less today.

"They are two very good horses - everybody talked about it coming down to these two horses and it played out that way. We were fortunate enough to have the right horse in the right place on the right day.

"Everything went our way - a clean break, nice pace, made the lead, waited a little bit, held her off and galloped off in front of her.

"We`ve never seen that kind of performance before but he is a very consistent horse. It`s obvious I`ve never had one at this level - it`s a rarified air."

Owner-breeder Seth Hancock added: "I take no pride in beating Zenyatta - I feel bad for them. I`m sorry we had to beat her.

"We`ve been involved with the farm for 38 years and I`ve never had a horse of the year but I think we`ve got one now."

Perhaps the final word, however, should go to trainer Bob Baffert, who watched his Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky - heads and shoulders above the rest of the US three-year-old dirt crop - come home a well-beaten fourth.

"I`ve never been involved in such a big race," said Baffert, a man who has trained three Kentucky Derby winners and two Dubai World Cup victors.

"I lost my voice yelling for Zenyatta," he said. "We were all yelling forZenyatta. I`m sad that she lost because she wanted to win - she could have easily won the race.

"She was too far back - she probably thinks she`s won," he added. "Blame is a really good horse who loves this track so youcan`t take anything away from him.

"But after the race I was watching Garrett Gomez trying to get the crowd to cheer but nobody would cheer!"

Posted on 7th November 2010 by Nicholas Godfrey in Kentucky