Hirsch boils down to big two
DEL MAR, Calif. -- The following is nearly guaranteed to happen before Sunday's $300,000 Clement Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar:
Zenyatta, undefeated in 11 races and the champion older female of 2008, will be warmly received in the track's paddock by fans zapping away with cell-phone and other digital cameras. Once on the track, she will not have much of a warmup. Before the Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park in May, Zenyatta was walked to the eighth pole by jockey Mike Smith, stood there for five minutes and then walked to the gate.
For the Grade 1 Hirsch, Zenyatta's running style is likely to go as follows: She will be at the back of the field early, move closer to the leaders on the turn, and then fly past her rivals before the sixteenth pole, when Smith stops urging her. By then, she will be a length or two in front.
That's what happened in her first 11 races, and there is little reason to believe anything will change Sunday.
"She's just amazing, without a doubt," Smith said earlier this week at the barn of trainer John Shirreffs. "Hopefully, she just runs her race."
Zenyatta's familiar style worked in seven graded stakes at four venues in 2008. This year, she has won the 10th and 11th races of her career in the Grade 2 Milady Handicap in May and the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap in June, both at Hollywood Park. In both cases, she defended her title from 2008.
"You look for repeatable performances in a horse," Shirreffs said. After the Apple Blossom Handicap in 2008, he said, "we figured it out: Just keep her happy."
Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta, 5, will once again be heavily favored in the Hirsch, which is run over 1 1/16 miles. As was the case in the Milady, her biggest threat is her stablemate Life Is Sweet, the dominant 4-year-old filly at Santa Anita during the winter.
Owned by Marty and Pam Wygod, Life Is Sweet was beaten 1 3/4 lengths when she ran second to Zenyatta in the Milady. She followed with a third-place finish against males in the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 11.
Life Is Sweet was considered for the San Diego Handicap against males on Aug. 2, but did not start after failing to train well on Del Mar's Polytrack surface in late July. Shirreffs tweaked Life Is Sweet's training schedule, and got an immediate response.
"We shortened her training," Shirreffs said. "She did a mile and three-quarters, mostly jogging."
Last Sunday, Life Is Sweet zipped five furlongs in 57.60 seconds, the fastest of 88 works at the distance. When she rebounded quickly from the workout, Shirreffs knew Life Is Sweet deserved a shot in the Hirsch.
"I've never seen her work that well," he said. "She has the same style as Zenyatta, and I don't know if it can be any different."
There are eight other fillies and mares entered in the Hirsch, but it's unclear how many owners and trainers are actually willing to start their horse against the Shirreffs duo. Some may defect to the Grade 1 John Mabee Stakes on turf on Aug. 16.
Briecat, second to Zenyatta in the Vanity, may pass the race, while Patricia's Gem, second in the Grade 2 Royal Heroine Stakes on turf at Hollywood Park on July 11, may start in the Mabee.
Three others in the field have won or placed in stakes this year. Champagne Eyes won the restricted Santa Lucia Stakes at Santa Anita, but was fifth in the Milady. Dawn After Dawn was third in the Vanity, while Lethal Heat was third in the Monrovia Handicap at Santa Anita.
Patricia's Gem was beaten a nose in the Royal Heroine by Tuscan Evening.
"I think greenness got her beat," trainer Richard Mandella said. "The other filly ran big and it startled her. She came back and almost got there."
Patricia's Gem has recorded all three of her wins on turf, but Mandella said she is not restricted to that surface.
"I'm curious to see how she'd run on the main track going two turns," he said.
For Mandella, that's one reason to try the Clement Hirsch Stakes.
"There are a couple of reasons not to," Mandella said.
That would be Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet.
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