Using History as a Guide to Handicap the Zenyatta Stakes

Gambling
Stellar Wind outfinished Beholder last year in a memorable edition of the Zenyatta Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

While it’s true that every horse race is a unique event with its own variables to consider, it’s also true that important stakes races like the $300,000 Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes on Sept. 30 at Santa Anita tend to be won year after year by horses following certain patterns.

In other words, history can be our helper when it comes to handicapping. By analyzing the past results of the Zenyatta Stakes, I have compiled some data and trends to help us narrow down the field and identify the most likely winners. Here are a few historical trends to keep in mind …

Speed Horses Have an Advantage

Unless your Zenyatta herself—one of the most talented and successful late runners of all time, and the mare after which the race is currently named—you generally don’t want to fall too far off the early pace in the Zenyatta Stakes. More often than not the pace is modest, and six of the last 10 winners were no more than a length off the lead after the first half-mile. Of course, three of the four exceptions to the rule were achieved by Zenyatta.

Year

Winner

Position after first 1/2-mile

½-mile and
¾-mile times

2016

Stellar Wind

2nd by 0.5 lengths (5 starters)

46.23, 1:09.75

2015

Beholder

3rd by 1 length (8 starters)

47.43, 1:11.38

2014

Beholder

3rd by 0.5 lengths (5 starters)

46.55, 1:10.34

2013

Beholder

1st by 1 length (7 starters)

47.36, 1:11.28

2012

Love and Pride

1st by 1 length (9 starters)

48.47, 1:12.58

2011

Zazu

6th by 10 lengths (7 starters)

46.34, 1:10.28

2010

Zenyatta

5th by 4.5 lengths (5 starters)

48.70, 1:13.06

2009

Zenyatta

6th by 6 lengths (7 starters)

49.58, 1:12.93

2008

Zenyatta

4th by 2 lengths (4 starters)

48.32, 1:11.45

2007

Tough Tiz’s Sis

2nd by 0.5 lengths (6 starters)

48.54, 1:12.11

Look for Proven Grade 1 Winners

The Zenyatta Stakes has historically been a tough race for up-and-comers to win. Since the race became a Grade 1 in 2007, nine of the 10 winners had already won a Grade 1 race, and the lone filly to break the trend (Tough Tiz’s Sis in 2007) was already a Grade 2 winner who had placed in Grade 1 company.

Bet the Favorites

Since proven Grade 1 winners have done so well in the Zenyatta Stakes, it comes as no surprise that favorites have also excelled. Six of the last 10 favorites have won the Zenyatta Stakes, and during that same timeframe the biggest upset was Love and Pride’s triumph at 4.10-1 in 2012. But wait, there’s more—the Zenyatta Stakes has been run 24 times so far, and in the entire history of the race, the biggest upset was Top Rung winning at 5.50-1 in 1996. Historically speaking, this is not a race in which you should look for longshot winners.          

Don’t Forget the 3-Year-Olds

Although the Zenyatta Stakes is open to older females, 3-year-old fillies have compiled a strong record (despite competing in the race somewhat infrequently) and can’t be overlooked. Three of the last 10 winners—Beholder (2013), Zazu (2011), and Tough Tiz’s Sis (2007) — won the race during their 3-year-old season, and another three-year-old, Switch, finished second behind Zenyatta in 2010.

Beholder won her third straight Zenyatta Stakes in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Favor the Locals

Since the Zenyatta Stakes is held in California, far from any of the other leading racing states, it’s not surprising that California-based horses and trainers have dominated the race. So far this century, every winner except Love and Pride in 2012 has had strong California ties, and trainers such as John Sadler (four wins with three different horses), John Shirreffs (four wins with two horses), Richard Mandella (three wins with Beholder), and Bob Baffert (two wins with two horses) have dominated the race. In fact, only once in the last 12 years has the Zenyatta Stakes been won by a trainer other than the four mentioned above.

Conclusions

Taking all of this together, the ideal win candidate for the Zenyatta Stakes is a California-based Grade 1 winner with plenty of early speed, and if they’re 3 years old and among the favorites in the wagering, all the better.

Although entries for the race have not yet been finalized, history suggests that the probable starters Paradise Woods and Vale Dori will be the two to focus on. Both are based in California (being trained by Richard Mandella and Bob Baffert, respectively), and both are speedy front-runners that already have Grade 1 wins on their records. If you want to have a preference for one over the other, it’s also worth noting that Paradise Woods is a 3-year-old filly, so in some respects history might favor her ever so slightly.

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