BC Internationals: Mile contender Zelzal

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

October 31st, 2017

Those of us old enough to have gone down in flames with even-money favorite Zilzal in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) at Gulfstream might have unwanted flashbacks by the sight of this fellow’s name, but don’t let that put you off this tantalizing 20-1 shot. Zelzal looked like a serious animal last summer, and Saturday could well offer his optimal conditions at long last.

By the great Sea the Stars and out of the beautifully bred Kingmambo mare Olga Prekrasa, Zelzal is trained by the prolific Jean-Claude Rouget. France’s perennial leading trainer, Rouget has regarded the colt very highly from the beginning.

Apparently the word was out, for the Al Shaqab runner was hammered into odds-on favoritism in his first two starts on the all-weather early in 2016. In his debut at Deauville (click link for replay), he demonstrated a smart turn of foot coming off the turn and drew away under a hand ride by six lengths.

Zelzal was arguably even more impressive next out at Chantilly. Traveling keenly behind the leader, he was stuck in a pocket, split rivals with an instant burst, and bounded clear. You don’t have to know French to pick up on the announcer’s laudatory “tres facilement.”

With just that newcomers’ race and conditions event to his credit. Zelzal made an audacious turf and stakes debut in the French 2000 Guineas (G1). Despite the massive class hike, his reputation had created such a buzz that he went off as the 5-1 third choice in the mile classic. It was an overreach, however, and he wilted badly after racing to the fore on the stands’ side.

Rouget later said that the straight course didn’t suit Zelzal either. From that point forward, he’s kept to a turn.

Regrouping in a gentler spot in the Paul de Moussac (G3), Zelzal also adopted more patient tactics, and surged to a good-looking victory.

Now the hype horse was finally ready to justify his press. If the Prix Jean Prat (G1) wasn’t the deepest race in the three-year-old mile division last summer -- and it was not -- the way Zelzal ambled to a course-record 1:34.48 suggested he was a class apart.

Zelzal could have consolidated his newfound status in the Prix du Moulin (G1), but the waiting tactics were overplayed in a race where it paid to be handy. The 13-8 favorite couldn’t catch Vadamos, and even worse, he lost second to the filly Spectre, whom he’d drubbed in the Jean Prat.   

Put away for the winter with hopes of 2017, Zelzal’s year started off on a bad note thanks to the virus that struck the Rouget yard. Thankfully, he wasn’t as adversely affected as his star stablemate Almanzor, who took much longer to mount a one-race comeback, disappointed, and retired to stud.

Zelzal resurfaced in the June 18 Prix Bertrand du Breuil (G3). Although he was reserved too far off the pace, by design, he finished far better than he did when last seen in the Moulin. He stayed on well for second to stablemate Taareef in 1:34.57, just off his own course record.

Taareef was making his comeback in the same race, but tracked the pace, and Rouget identified the tactics as decisive to the outcome: “maybe we would have ridden Zelzal a little closer, but he might then have had a harder race and that was not the plan beforehand.”

That was his tightener for his midsummer goal, the Sussex (G1) at Glorious Goodwood. Hunting for room before creeping through on the fence, Zelzal offered a brief challenge to Ribchester before flailing in the soft ground. He ended up fourth in a race that suited only the winner, soft-ground specialist Here Comes When. The conditions robbed him of what Rouget has termed “his great strength” – his acceleration.

Scratched from a rematch with Ribchester in the Prix du Moulin (G1), which also came up soft, Zelzal couldn’t avoid a rain-affected track again in the Prix de la Foret (G1) on Arc Day. He tried to rally from well back, but as in the Sussex, he made some headway before sputtering.

The Foret has had a bearing on the Mile in recent years, chiefly through the one-of-a-kind Goldikova, who used it as a springboard to two of her three Breeders’ Cup wins (2009-10). But Karakontie also did, rebounding from his badly hampered 11th in the Foret to spring a 30-1 upset in the 2014 Mile over fellow Foret alumnus Anodin.

More tellingly, France has been the most dominant European nation in the Mile. Aside from a single British-trained hero (Barathea in 1994), and two Irish-based winners (Royal Academy in 1990 and Ridgewood Pearl in 1995), the Mile has gone the way of the tricolor in the other 10 runnings won by internationals. Zelzal’s not the only French shipper here – fellow Al Shaqab colorbearer Karar has made it into the field too – but he’s undoubtedly the more exciting.

With a (too?) creative reading of the form, you can argue that Zelzal’s not that far off Ribchester, for reasons beyond the Sussex. He’s placed to Vadamos and Taareef, each of whom has finished second to Ribchester in French Group 1s, in circumstances that have not played to Zelzal’s strengths. What might he be capable of if he gets the right set of circumstances?

We got a whiff of that in the Jean Prat, and Del Mar may be a similar canvas for Zelzal. He’ll get a fast pace, firm turf, and given his preference for a turn, why not two? If he’s good enough, if Rouget’s early judgment of him was correct, perhaps he can spring the surprise at massive odds.

Zelzal is retiring to Al Shaqab’s Haras du Bouquetot after the Mile, so he’s running out of time to enhance his stud appeal. It’s now or never, and I’d really like to think he’ll rise to the occasion.

Photo courtesy Al Shaqab via Twitter