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Slow start at Breeders' Cup

ARCADIA, Calif. --- Here I sit, broken-hearted. Batting 1 for 5, I just can't get started.

Mixed emotions ruled the Happy Handicapper here at the Breeders' Cup. With 35.7 percent (5 of 14) of the weekend's Breeders' Cup races by the board, I am a frustrated gambler, but still one really thrilled racing fan.

Watching Zenyatta, the unbeaten 4-year-old filly, make her eat-em-up, last-to-first move on the far outside on the far turn of the $2 million Ladies Classic, was Friday's moment to remember on the all-female card run before a crowd of 31,257.

Sent off as the 1-2 favorite by savvy bettors all over the world, Zenyatta passed her seven rivals in the blink of eye and flew home to quickly erase any hope of an upset by those, like me, who were foolish enough to bet against her.

"Horse racing is about performance and we saw a great performance today," said winning trainer John Shirreffs. Amen, brother.

As a gambler, my best performance was Forever Together's victory in the $2 million Filly &Mare Turf.
The gray 4-year-old came flying on the outside under Julien Leparoux to win the 1 1/4-mile grass race by three-quarters of a length over Sealy Hill. She paid $11.80 to win and $6.40 to place, giving me a total of $18.20 for the Internet contest that challenges entrants to pick all 14 winners.

I bet real money on Forever Together too, but Sealy Hill's second-place finish at 48-1 as the longest shot in the race, left me singing the "woulda, coulda, shudda" blues. I bet a win ticket on Canada's 2007 Horse of the Year, but didn't back her up to place ($36.20) or hook her with the winner for the $449 exacta. Grrr.

"She's got Woodbine figured out but this was a new course for her," said Patrick Husbands, Sealy Hill's Toronto-based rider. "At the eighth pole a hole opened and she just went shooting through. She got to the lead and then just kind of pulled herself up and the other horse went by."

One reason why I made Forever Together my public selection was the connections --- two horsemen I admire, trainer Jonathan Sheppard and owner George Strawbridge. Over the years, both have been sportsmen of the highest order but this was the first Breeders' Cup winner for Sheppard, a Hall of Famer, and the first they've had together in their 42 years of partnership.

"It's incredibly meaningful to me. ... I hadn't won a really major championship race like this before. ... It does mean a lot to have this on my resume," Sheppard said.

It was a good day for Hall of Famers. Jockey Mike Smith won two Breeders' Cup races with eye-catching last-to-first moves and took an assignment as a subsitute in a later race and won with another deep closer (Becrux) that paid $31.80. (I bet it at the last minute because of the Smith angle, but that probably doesn't count for bragging rights here since it  wasn't picked publicly.)

Besides Zenyatta Smith piloted Stardom Bound, a 2-year-old he calls "Baby Z," to a 13th-to-first victory in the Juvenile Fillies.

"Her late run is devastating. She tears their hearts out," said Christopher Paasch, Stardom Bound's trainer.

"I knew when I called on her she was going to jump through the bridle and she did," Smith said. "And the only thing I had to do at the end was stay busy. She's never hit the front quite that soon. She got to looking around a little. I stayed busy," Smith said.

Also Hall trainer Bobby Frankel's Ventura passed nine horses to win the Filly and Mare Sprint. With Garrett Gomez aboard, Ventura ran down front-running favorite Indian Blessing in the stretch to win at 7 furlongs in 1:19.90, just a hundredth of a second slower than Indian Blessing's track record set on Jan. 13, 2008.

Ventura prepped for the Cup with a second-place finish against males in the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 7. "She ran a great race [at Woodbine] and it probably gave her the stamina to run as fast as she could today," Frankel said.

So what did the Filly Friday card teach horseplayers that can be applied to Saturday's nine-race Breeders' Cup card for males?

The biggest thing that jumps out is that the both the turf track, which is cropped almost as smooth as a billiard table, and the synthetic "Pro-Ride" surface, which looks like an explosion at a carpet factory, are playing very kindly to  come-from-behind horses. Most front-runners fared poorly and deep closers did very well.

As for the Mike Smith angle, he has only one mount --- 15-1 Tiago against big favorite Curlin in the Classic --- on Saturday's card. So that might be something to consider. But you never know. Smith be available to fill in if somebody gets sick. Stay alert.

--- Bob Summers




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