There is a real battle going on in chat boards and on industry sites about how trainers should race their star horses. Namely, the discussion revolves around Zenyatta, and how she was campaigned. She is clearly one of the better mares ever - especially one-run closing mares - but people want to see her tested week in and week out to make sure she is. It seems that she is a horse, who even though has been racing for three seasons undefeated in grade 1 races when that in itself is a feat, that has not quite given enough.
Melissa Keith wrote an excellent article on this phenomenon in the Horseplayer edition of Trot magazine in April. The interviewee, Somebeachsomewhere trainer Brent McGrath spoke of the challenges that a horse goes through in a tough season nowadays. "You look at the number of miles under 1:50 he paced. Horses will last a long time if they don't do very much - just like people", he said. "We were asking him to do a big job every time he set foot on the track." A bettor in the article who wanted to see him race more, and race tougher, retorts: "you owe it to the sport to showcase the animal."
In the DRF, this topic was also broached for the runners via trainer comments.
Bill Mott: "Very seldom do you see a horse that has more than two really, really top seasons. It's a rarity any more to see that. Even Cigar, he was good at the end of his 4-year-old year, good at 5, and then good the first half of his 6-year-old year."
Baffert on his champ filly Silverbulletday: "I ran her at so many tracks, and I think that wears on them more than anything. That really stresses them, you know. It's a lot of road games."
Mott on Ajina: "By the time she was 4, she had just about quit. It had even taken me a while to get her going at 3."
I am a bettor, but I am also an owner, and I could not agree more with them.
When you get to the bottom of horses each and every race in this century, it does take something out of them. I have plenty of vet bills to prove it, and so do many of you. When they reach a bottom, they sleep in their stall the next day, a foot has a little trouble healing, the tweaks start. It is a paramount reason we see the short careers of today.
It was not like this 25 years ago, or before that. In 1970, in thoroughbred or harness racing there were no supertrainers with a colt or filly ready to light up the teletimer against you. There was not the depth of today - you'd have a 110 Beyer, or 153 pacer, then the drop-off was dramatic. Back then Cam Fella could race 33 times at three and take on all comers, because those horses could not go with him. 58 half times in plenty of his races is not taxing on a horse, unlike going 54 seconds and having to throw a 27.1 at the field to shake them off like today. In the thoroughbred game today it is not a lot easier. Let's say you had a nice sprinter in January as a 3 year old that you were prepping for a nice career. In 1980 you were fine - enter in any race early and you will not find a 120 Beyer in your midst; nice easy race. Nowadays you enter that same horse at Gulfstream against a first time Dutrow like This One's For Phil, and you get your head cracked open.
This is an age where the last two Kentucky Derby favorites were scratched due to injury - one of whom was scratched the morning of the race itself. In addition, the Triple Crown trail is not a term of endearment anymore, it is a war of attrition; almost a Darwinian pursuit. We must look no further than to see the carcassed career of thoroughbreds littering the landscape, even before a Jay Z tune is sung. We have bred fast horses, but we have not had a triple crown winner for 30+ years for a reason. This is not the age of Bret Hanover or Dr. Fager, and we should not expect horses to be raced like it. Yes there have been some horses able to do it today, but early retirements due to injury or being off form outnumber those horses by a stunning factor.
I firmly believe we are speaking of a horse like Zenyatta today for exactly that reason - they have treated her not like a commodity, but like a modern racehorse. I know three quarters of our fans are over the age of fifty, and thinking about horses in the context of the past is what's done. But for those who want Zenyatta in grade I races against males each time to "prove herself", or to ship cross country to meet a new contender who happens to run a big number, I think they should change their expectations. In 2010, just having her race at a top level month in and month out at age six while never losing a race, is greatness in itself.
On Paceadvantage.com Big Mack has a nice video up of Zenyatta's career, including stretch runs of all her races. For those who have not seen all her races, please take a look as it is wonderfully done. In an era where handicapping books are written titled "The Power of Early Speed" because of the hole that deep closers are put in with our sport, I don't think Zenyatta got the memo. What a racehorse.