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Angus McNae

Captain's Blog - 8th November 2010

Don’t Blame Mike, blame it on the dirt!

All good things come to an end they say and we had a stark reminder of the validity of the popular phrase on Saturday when Zenyatta was beaten in the Breeders Cup Classic. Her unbeaten run gone in a flash amidst a tide of emotion and the usual apportioning of culpability. I have asked myself why she was beaten because these things require some in depth thought rather than a knee jerk reaction. Of course the immediate response is to blame jockey Mike Smith for giving her too much to do. Indeed he has blamed himself for her defeat in a vain attempt to deflect torrents of criticism, but was it really his fault?

One legitimate question to ask is, was she beaten by a better horse in the form of Blame, the answer to this has to be no. Blame is a legitimate Grade 1 horse with previous form at Churchill Downs but on past form there was no better horse in the race than Zenyatta. She had run bigger Beyer figures than Blame coming into the race and she had beaten better horses than Blame had. Thus we must look elsewhere to explain her defeat.

Perhaps she was not herself, a bit off colour on the big day. This is unlikely given that she had won 19 out of 19 career starts and for each win she had been produced in top form. What is more her trainer who is a wily and talented trainer was happy that she came into he race in good form. She had been training well before the race and all reports from those who practice the dark art of paddock watching thought she looked the part as she trained at the track all week.

With the form and welfare angles clearly not culpable what about the much derided Mike Smith. Mike is a journeyman jockey, he is no Gomez or Dettori, but he knows his way around American racetracks albeit he is known for not giving the outside to anyone. During the race he was happy to sit a long way off the pace. Did he give her too much to do though? The obvious answer is yes. She was well behind at half way but made rapid headway in the straight only to narrowly fail to land the spoils. There is a misconception in horse Racing though that when you are beaten having been held up you would have won if you had been ridden close to the pace. This is palpable nonsense as to be held up is to save energy for a finish, whereas to race close to the pace is to use up that energy early in the race thereby ensuring a week finish. Thus Zenyatta finished strongly having saved energy in the race, that much Mike Smith got right. What is more this is Zenyatta’s style. All of her recent wins have been achieved by utilising her late pace having been held up. This has led to some scintillating wins and also some narrow ones as well where the race has not been quite run to suit, but she has always won. This time her late running style let her down and her jockey probably got just too far behind early on. Mike Smith has always had to walk a pace judging tightrope with this mare, and he has always come up trumps, here he just got it wrong, but why did it go wrong this time?

It did not go wrong because Smith is a numpty or because he cannot ride or because he cannot judge pace, it went wrong because Churchill Downs is a dirt track. Smith was always going to drop Zenyatta out but on dirt when you do that you get Kickback, and Zenyatta definitely backed off the dirt she got in her face early on perhaps getting further behind than her jockey wanted. Secondly on Dirt horses go off hard and fast and do not come back as quickly as they do on Polytrack and a dirt track does not offer a horse the same purchase or help that a polytrack does. Look at it this way, if you took a Lingfield polytrack specialist with late fast finishing pace and asked that horse to come from off the pace at Southwell you would not see the same horse, instead of being one that can quicken and finish fast up the Lingfield straight you would have a dirt covered horse struggling to pick up and get involved in Southwell’s home straight.

This is what happened to Zenyatta, she is a polytrack horse who had only run a cfew times on dirt coming into this year’s classic. Her loop and swoop late pace looked magnificent on the bouncy pro-ride at Santa Anita last year, but it was not as potent on a more attritional surface. Mike Smith rode her how he always has but the surface beat her and I would venture to say that she showed remarkable courage to get as close to Blame as she did. Yes Mike Snith gave her too much to do, but if he rode exactly the same race on a polytrack she would win every time. If he is guilty of anything it was that he failed to have a plan for a dirt surface.

Zenyatta is a great racehorse, the Queen of the Synthetics, but when it came to getting down and dirty in Louisville she just came up short.


Today's Selection

2.30 Wolverhampton – Conry (5/2 Betfred )



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