On Zenyatta…

One day later, I wake up, the replay of last night’s Breeders Cup Classic playing through my mind. It’s one of those races that you think if you keep playing it enough, the great mare will get there, instead of being short by a diminishing head.

Perfection in sports is hard to come by, and is therefore one of the most sought-after accomplishments. To go for 20-0 would’ve placed Zenyatta in a category that not even some of the greats could say they were in. But even Man O’War had his one defeat, Citation had many, and the great Secretariat had his share as well. So while I sit here today, still somewhat disappointed at the outcome of the race, I know what she accomplished in defeat, and what she has done for a sport that gets less and less mainstream coverage, was great in itself.

This is not meant as a knock on Blame. He’s a tough horse, got a perfect trip over his home track, and dug in when Zenyatta came to his flank. He won the Grade I Stephen Foster and the Grade I Whitney over Quality Road this year. I know Blame because I follow this sport intensely. For the rest of the world, Zenyatta became that household name, like a Rachel Alexandra or a Barbaro. To be able to draw in casual fans of the sport, if only for a fleeting moment, or to gain the national coverage that Zenyatta did this past week, is a plus for the racing. It needed her, her perfection, her great size and gentle demeanor, her beer drinking and dance moves. She became more than most horses ever become, not only because of her excellence as an athlete, but as a figure with a personality greater than what most people would ever think a horse would have.

So in defeat last night, so far back at the start of the stretch run, having nowhere to go, and still powering home to lose by inches, Zenyatta showed us the greatest quality a thoroughbred has: heart. She silenced any doubts as to whether she was a “synthetic specialist,” or was soft because she has mostly run against fillies and mares. When the odds were stacked so high against her, she almost pulled it off.

While I will most remember last year’s Classic win, mainly because I was out at Santa Anita to witness it in person, one of my favorite moments with Zenyatta will be when I saw her last summer at Hollywood Park. My greatest regret will be that I didn’t ask to have a photo taken with her; I was so surprised that John Shirreffs would even let me near his horse that I didn’t dare ask. But Team Zenyatta has been nothing but generous with their star when it would have been easy to restrict access to her. Her facebook page is filled with photos of fans posing with her, photos from the backside of the track and closeups of her in the paddock on race day. Even on the day following her lone loss,  Shirreffs moved the barricade that had been around the stable area and allowed people to love on Zenyatta.

I guess this all leads up to the discussion that will ensue over the next months concerning Horse of the Year. Actually, this debate started as soon as Blame and Zenyatta hit the wire. Some say that Blame won the head to head matchup, and therefore should be HoY no questions asked. Zenyatta won five Grade I’s this year, and yes, they were against her own sex and mostly in California. But what she did for the sport this year is immeasurable. When Rachel Alexandra pulled out of the eagerly anticipated meeting in the Apple Blossom earlier this year, Zenyatta’s connections still sent her, knowing that she alone was enough of a draw to help out Oaklawn after they had put so much effort into having this race happen. She has raced in California so much in support of the local racing scene, and helped draw huge crowds to Hollywood Park, which probably won’t be standing in the next few years.

Zenyatta became a national phenomenon, appearing in Oprah magazine, Sports Illustrated, on 6o Minutes. I had friends who don’t follow racing come up to me and say, “I saw Zenyatta on TV the other day.” This was evidence of her impact.

The harsh reality is that this sport gets very little major coverage save for the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup. For every Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra there are the Eight Belles, Go For Wands and Ruffians. For once the news this past week was about the magnificent competitor, and not the tragic ending.

So while I have no hand in the Horse of the Year voting, Zenyatta deserves every vote she may get. If she doesn’t win, I think her legacy in racing history is assured. Like many a film that never won an Oscar, and those films that did that we don’t remember anyways, I would guess that 50 years from now Blame isn’t remembered in the same way as Zenyatta.

If this is the final curtain call, I’ll be sad to see her go. The last few years have been nothing short of magical. We leave the Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta era with the momentum to garner more interest in horse racing, even though we might never see the likes of these two supergirls again. I know I will always remember Zenyatta, and she will likely be the horse I measure those to come against. Old timers took pride in being able to say they saw Citation, Secretariat, Man O’War. I will say I was lucky enough to see Big Z.

Written Nov. 8, 2010

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