ARCADIA, Calif. - The Breeders' Cup was designed to showcase the sport's best runners and decide year-end championships, and even in its current 14-race format, it has been a great success over its 26-year run. Yet as good as this year's event is, and it is quite good, the sport's ultimate title might not be on the line, even with such accomplished horses as Summer Bird and the unbeaten, popular mare Zenyatta meeting on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting in the premier event, the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Rachel Alexandra has been considered the leader for Horse of the Year, based on a series of impressive victories that included the Kentucky Oaks and, against males, in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward stakes. She, however, is not here, her 2009 campaign having ended in September, with majority owner Jess Jackson saying he did not want to run her on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface, where his Curlin was fourth in last year's Classic.
There are those, though, who believe the Breeders' Cup should be supported regardless, that it should be as advertised, the venue to decide championships.
"This is what the Breeders' Cup is all about, so we feel it's our responsibility to participate," said Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs.
"This is supposed to be the championship races," said Tim Ice, who trains Summer Bird. "Whoever wins should get top honors. My opinion is that each sport has its championship game, and you should compete in them for championships. This is the stage where Horse of the Year should be decided."
Both Zenyatta and Summer Bird certainly have the credentials. Zenyatta, owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, has won all 13 of her starts, including four this year. The Classic will be her first try against males. Summer Bird has put together victories in the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. If either adds the Classic, it makes for a compelling resume.
Regardless, a horse with a worthy campaign will be slighted. Especially if the vote comes down to Zenyatta vs. Rachel Alexandra, because they never met, yet both will have stepped out of the box to beat males.
"If Zenyatta wins it, I wish they could give Horse of the Year to both owners," said trainer Bob Baffert. "We need more of that in racing."
"It'll be like the year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe Dimaggio had his 56-game hitting streak and was the MVP," said Rick Mettee, the North American-based assistant to Godolphin Racing trainer Saeed bin Suroor, who has Girolamo and Regal Ransom in the Classic.
"We'd like it to be on dirt, but it is the championships," Mettee added. "You can't win the AFC Championship game and then pass the Super Bowl because you don't like where it's played."
Zenyatta is certainly the star attraction in the Classic, which highlights Day 2 of the 26th Breeders' Cup. She is unquestionably the best older filly or mare in the country. Now, the stakes get raised.
"For Zenyatta at this point in her career, the Classic is obviously a big challenge," Shirreffs said. "But to not do it, when she's doing particularly well, would be just as big a mistake. Mr. Moss is not thinking Horse of the Year as much as wanting to see Zenyatta compete at the highest level."
The fans are expected to be in her corner. Jon White of Santa Anita has installed her as the morning-line favorite.
"Zenyatta brings so much excitement to the race," said Baffert, who will try to beat her with Richard's Kid.
Zenyatta will put on a show before the race. She is quite the ham in the paddock, stretching and prancing, throwing her legs out like a Rockette. But first, she admires the scene.
"When she walks to the paddock, she stands there like some Roman god," said her jockey, Mike Smith.
Zenyatta regularly trains at Hollywood Park. She came to Santa Anita on Wednesday afternoon, and had a routine gallop on Thursday morning. She will be racing 1 1/4 miles for the first time.
"She's never failed to catch her target," said her exercise rider, Steve Willard.
Even those who rarely have seen Zenyatta accord her great respect. Christophe Clement, who is sending out Gio Ponti in the Classic, wishes Zenyatta would have run Friday in the Ladies' Classic, which she won last year.
"We're all trying to make a living around here," Clement said, joking.
Rip Van Winkle, the European standout expected to vie for favoritism with Zenyatta, galloped on Thursday morning. Even though he has been battling foot problems, he was not wearing any corrective shoeing on Thursday morning.
The Classic is the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 10:05 a.m. Pacific with the Damascus Stakes. Eight Breeders' Cup races follow, beginning with the Juvenile Turf at 10:45. The Sprint begins an all-Breeders' Cup pick six that has a mandatory payout. The Classic, the last BC race of the day, has a scheduled post time of 3:45 p.m. The Oak Tree Derby follows the Classic and completes the card.
All the Breeders' Cup races will be televised live, first from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Pacific on ABC, then from 12:30 until 4 on ESPN.
The weather has been delightful all week and is forecast to remain so through Saturday, with predictions calling for a high temperature of 75 degrees, partly cloudy skies, and no chance of rain.