June 15, 2010

Zenyatta: Is She the Best Ever?

Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track, Zenyatta’s patented closing kick is as sure a thing as you can find in the world today. She has the size, power, and the ability to sprint home like Forego, only with the consistency of the rising sun. Zenyatta getting to the wire first has become as inevitable as death and taxes. 17 times she has stepped into the starting gate, and each and every time it was Zenyatta who was the one to celebrate in the winner’s circle. She has terrorized grade 1 filly and mare races on the West Coast like no one has ever before. With major tests still on the horizon, Zenyatta will have to be as great as ever to retire undefeated, but looking at her career to date, I believe it is time to ask the question…Is Zenyatta the best racehorse of all time?

Heady stuff, but a reasonable question nonetheless. The most popular choice for anyone in their 60’s or younger is Secretariat. Big Red graced the cover of Time Magazine during his heyday, and now 37 years after his retirement will be featured in a major motion picture this year. Can Zenyatta possibly stack up against Secretariat? Let’s take a look…

Secretariat officially won 16 of 21 starts, although he was disqualified once after an easy win in the Champagne Stakes, meaning that he finished first in 17 of 21 starts. A great record, but obviously Zenyatta’s unblemished record is untouchable. Consistency advantage - Zenyatta

Zenyatta has won all of her races, but often she comes along just in time to win the race in the final sixteenth. Her times are consistently strong, but track records, or even world records are not her forte. Secretariat meanwhile, on his best, ran superior times like the 1:45 2/5 in the Marlboro Cup, and the 2:24 in the Belmont Stakes. In that Belmont, Secretariat ran what I consider the greatest race in history, winning by an incredible 31 lengths. Brilliance advantage - Secretariat

While both stars announced their great ability early in their careers, it has been Zenyatta who has carried her superiority over a longer period of time. Secretariat’s racing life lasted just under a year and a half in 1972 and 1973, while Zenyatta is closing in on three years of sustained excellence. Longevity advantage - Zenyatta

Secretariat and Zenyatta both graduated quickly from the maiden and allowance ranks to run strictly in major stakes for the rest of their careers. While Zenyatta has stepped out only once from running in races restricted to females, in winning the BC Classic, Secretariat stepped up to take on older males in his final five races on both dirt and turf. Couple that with his sensational series of races in America’s Triple Crown, and you would have to say Secretariat ran against more good horses in his career than Zenyatta so far. Quality of competition advantage - Secretariat

Food for thought. Who would you favor Secretariat or Zenyatta? Neither answer is wrong, but whoever you favor is certainly in the argument for the greatest Thoroughbred racehorse of all time. Heady stuff indeed.

Zenyatta Photo by Cecilia G. Felix

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

How can you possibly judge Zenyatta's career before her career is over?

Brian Zipse said...

To this point Anonymous...is that really so hard to understand?

william said...

hey brian..excellent article....as much as i love zenyatta secretariat is the horse....to mention these 2 fine animals in one article is wonderful...thank you!

Brian Zipse said...

Two of your all-time favorites, huh William?

Ciarán said...

i like sea the stars for this accolade :P ..if not zarkava...

darlene said...

I think another catagory was needed but it would be a tie The catagory would be joy in the job if horses could have such a thing Secretariat ran that Belmont in record time and won by 31 with no pressure or whip.Just the love of running fast And Zen goes and does a little dane and pauses to look around to see if everyone is watching and poses for the cameras Goes and does her race and comes back posing again and looking to see if all eyes on her Joy in the job: TIE

Anonymous said...

Both are Legends. Tie I do however
believe that perfect is almost impossible and Zenyatta is just that Perfection

Heather C said...

I love both of these horses, but I do think Zenyatta is the best. She's perfect, and she has proven herself against some pretty great horses.

LDP said...

Well I would actually have Sec ranked second or third behind The Bid and Man o War. Man o War is my favorite. I've only seen a couple vids and read of him, but the only time he was ever beaten he was standing backwards at the break and even had a nightmare of a trip after that!

He had the records, the brilliance, and competition. His longevity however was cut short because he kept overreaching and hitting the back of his front leg, damaging his tendon. That combind with the fact he would recieve weights of surely over 140lbs led to his retirement.

IMO, he is the best horse of all time.

I do not think Zen can be called that. Yes, she has faced some nice horses in the past, but she has face nowhere near the competition of Man o War or Secretariat. She hasn't even carried as much weight as Man o War, who was force to carry wieghts 130lbs as a two year old.

I think she is potentially one of the greatest of all time and could turn that potential into reality if she would go ahead and be allowed to run outside of her comfort zone against the best America has to offer.

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that she has raced so much in California will hurt her legacy. Perhaps people are prepared to say it isn't a big deal now, but years down the road I really see it working against her. It's a shame.

mvlach77 said...

I'm not at the point where I include Zenyatta in the same class as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, etc. I admit that Zenyatta can make the claim for most consistent, but these other horses took on insane competition over and over on multiple tracks against the best male horses. Plus the synthetic factor is an issue, not so much on whether Zen can run well on dirt or not, but on the number of good horses that you'll never face because they'll never run on synthetic. I think Zen is a fantastic mare, but I'm not going to the "best ever" category.

Sami said...

Great article! Everything you said is true! I do wish Zenyatta could run againts better horses though... Shes my favorite ever, even though i was nowhere near being born when Sec. was around. Both true Champs!

ja.raymond said...

I think Zen would have to travel a bit more (widening her campaign), run more mile and quarter races (possibly a mile and a half), and run against a few other outstanding males to beat Big Red's accomplishments.
But, I'm thinking, if you put the two in a match race (if he were alive today) at a mile and a quarter, because she is bigger than Sec, Zen would win; once she gets all engines firing, she's got a longer stride, and would hit the wire about a nose in front.
I know Sec is an X-Factor baby, and I believe Zen is (altho, I'm not 100% sure), so that fantasy match race would be totally off the charts!!!!

Nancy said...

ja.raymond-

Zen can't exhibit the x-factor unless both her dam and sire gave her the gene. The chances of that are practically nil. It's possible that she carries the x-factor gene and could give it to her offspring (colts would exhibit the larger heart but fillies would only exhibit it if the sire also had the x-factor) and that too is slim.

As for Zen's greatness, personally I can't call her great as she's not ran back to back against males let alone more than once against males, she's not ran a race on less than 3 weeks rest, and she's ran close to 90% of her races on what would be her home track. The list of who she's beat is impressive, but the races in which she's beat them are so spread out. How about two back to back races that challenge her before we call her great.

Anonymous said...

Best horses ever IMHO: 1. Man O'War, 2. Secretariat, 3. I'll tell you at the end of the year, which should give you an idea of where I'm leaning.

I agree with the first anonymous... Right now, Zenyatta (who is my favorite horse right now), is a great, great horse. But, her career is not over.

If she stays healthy and undefeated through the rest of the year, especially if she goes east and races at Belmont or Saratoga on the east coast media's precious dirt this summer, then races at Churchill, again on dirt, in the Breeders' Cup, and wins all of them, then her legacy will be as one of the all-time great, greats - and that is beyond the fact that she should already be considered one of the all-time greats based on the simple fact that she is - 17-0.

Time will tell, but right now, it is a bit early to determine her legacy...

BTW, nice article Brian.

RickC

mvlach77 said...

Secretariat ran the fastest Kentucky Derby ever going 1 1/4 in 1:59.2. He would have torched Zenyatta at this distance as would Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, etc. Zen is great but she has never beaten males on a traditional surface. This isn't even close.

linkx said...

all I have to type is wait till the end of the year,when Z wins the classic over arguably the best one assembled if they run [quality road,rachel,blame,rail trip or any others]secretariats greatest race was the belmont yes.He won the triple crown yes.But he lost and the competition at that time was suspect.Z when she finishes the year 20 for 20 or so including the classic on dirt on the east coast will become the greatest.Because you see there are many horses that can break track records,many that can run speed figures in the 120's.There have been multiple triple crown winners.But there will only be one undefeated 3 time breeders cup winner and for that she will be number 1 for a long time.

General Assembly said...

Until we have at least another decade of synthetic performances to compare to Zenyatta her place in history will be a great mare who excelled on a particular surface type. Two dirt wins, on the same track two years apart, is not enough to make the leap that she could defeat some of the fastest dirt horses of all time at 1 1/4 miles. Spectacular Bid clocked a 1:57 4/5 and Affirmed a 1:58 1/5 on dirt surfaces. Affirmed's might have been even better because he was carrying more than 130 and was under pressure the whole way. Also, Secretariat was clocked in the same time as the Bid when pulling up in the Marlboro Cup. Zenyatta has never truly had to deal with the superior dirt horses at the top of their game on that surface. Much has been made about her closing into slow fractions on the synth, but the surface tends to give advantage to closers at route distances. She is a great horse, and I wouldn't bet against her on the left coast, but she still has much to prove.

Sam King said...

linkx,

You hit the nail right on the head!

Spot on and so true!

Chicago Guy said...

Brian;
Zenyatta certainly brings chills to all of us who love this sport-- to paraphrase Trevor Denman.." If you aren't moved by this racehorse, you don't like horse racing!". But I think we need to put everything in context. It is so hard to compare. Would Zenyatta have beaten Ruffian? Regret? Personal Ensign? So, while it's hard to imagine these race outcomes, it's almost impossible to hazard a guess about the great males vs. Zenyatta. Our world was denied the prospect of the 4 year old match ups of Secretariat vs. Forego at equal weights. We must treasure all the great ones, of which Zenyatta will always rank as.

Kimness said...

Great article - as usual Brian. Secretariat will always be my sentinmental favorite - his Belmont was unbelievable, and like you said, the greatest race ever!! I love Zenyatta - to have them both in the same article is amazing. I wish for nothing more than her to stay safe & perfect. But go East Team Z & show 'em what you're really made of!!! I think she may be better on dirt.
Question for Brian - I don't know if this is true, hope its not & I chose to believe its NOT true! I've heard that Secretariat was given steroids??? Please tell me that is a LIE

Brian Zipse said...

Kim, Honestly I have never heard that rumor, and I wonder how prevalent it was almost 40 years ago.

Kimness said...

Some "self-proclaimed" know-it-all told me that a few years ago. I got mad. Back then, though - you never know for sure how much 'cheating' was going on.
I'm glad you've never heard it - that would make it possible.
Secretariats heart was enormous - I've heard that steroids make your head big & balls small. LOL - sorry.

John said...

Depends on your definition of best. Best for our time, or best in history... mmm wonder how Alexander the Great's horse Bucephalus would have done? He was a big guy probably ran like a plow horse ;-))http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bucephalus

railrunner said...

I would have to say Secretariat but also add that I think Zenyatta has the ability to be the best, it's her connections poor placings that are hurting her chances.
One other thing to take into consideration is the yearly campaign each horse runs, Secretariat raced 9 times in his 2-year-old year and 12 times as a 3-year-old. Zenyatta started twice in her 3-year-old year, 7 times as a 4-year-old and a measly 5 starts in her 5-year-old year.

railrunner said...

Just as a side note here, I don't personally consider Secretariat greater than Citation, Phar Lap, Kelso, Spectacular Bid or Man 'O' War.

Brian Zipse said...

Interesting John.

Railrunner, well done. A strong list...all of them are in the discussion.

Mike in SB said...

It is hard to compare horses from different eras, even harder to compare a colt who won his greatest races as a 3yr old and a mare running at 6. And I do think Secretariat was the greatest horse of the last 60 years, but I don't think it is fair to discount Zenyatta for the campaign she has run. She is just an example of racing today, Secretariat raced 23 times in two years, very few of todays horses race even 15 times.
And the Breeders Cup has really changed racing, today the Breeders Cup is the only time the best horses face each other on the track. Look at the schedule for recent past winners and even the top horses this year, especially older horses, it seems to be just make it through the year and be fresh for the Breeders Cup. This is one reason the top horses rarely face each other now, the eastern horses prep for the Breeders Cup in New York, the western horses in California. If Zenyatta wins the Breeders Cup Classic for the second year, especially if undefeated, she will have to be one of the 4 or 5 greatest horses to ever run in the United States

mvlach77 said...

For those who think Zen is the greatest ever do you think she could have run down Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, and Marlboro Cup? Do you think she would have whizzed by Spectacular Bid when he set the world record at a 1 1/4 going 1.57 and change? Would she have blown by Affirmed when he runs 1.58 and change for the 1 1/4 carrying 132 lbs? I don't.

william said...

rachel star of the week over zenyatta?? brian again....and for all who keep bringing up where she races..shes a california based horse....came east to defeat the champion ginger punch and then to take on rachel who was unavailable...17 wins in a row!..ran the last furlong in 11.61...please give her the credit she has well earned...lol and dont forget our bet

Anonymous said...

to mvlach77 response to could she have caught secretariat,or bid,in those great races is irrelevant.for one she doesnt know how to loose,and those other horses have,and to much inferior competition.Now I know those were fluke defeats,but I might be fair to say that the record breaking performances were flukes too.Any how its like saying that kobe out played jordan one or two games,does that make him better.no
that mario lemioux out played gretsky is he better.that bonds has the record for homeruns is he better than hank,or manttle?see where im going with this perfection is hers and no one else,well maybe eclipse but I wonder the competition in those days.Z is #1

Brian Zipse said...

Bring it William!

General Assembly said...

Record breaking performances were flukes... What an idiot! It would be a fluke if each of those horses only ran one superior race. Most of them ran numerous races at or near track record speed. Zenyatta may have never lost, but if she would have been subjected to a more testing campaign during any of her racing years, it is likely she would have been defeated. Deep closers are generally not the most consistent on dirt.
The synthetics penalize front runners and favor closers in route races. She has been campaigned brilliantly to take advantage of that. Where her connections are failing her this year is not taking on the boys at her supposed optimum distance of 1 1/4 miles. They said that the Gold Cup comes up to soon to race again, but she wasn't really cranked for the Vanity. Well, why didn't they take the few extra weeks and just prepare her for the Gold Cup. It is at her ideal distance at a track she loves as opposed to the surface at Del Mar. After her close call last year I doubt we would see her in the Pacific Classic. Instead, we can look forward to the same schedule we saw last year. While it is always exciting to watch her, it really isn't what her connections promised when un-retiring her.

mvlach77 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mvlach77 said...

If we've gotten to the point where we consider Secretariat's records as "flukes" we've lost all rationality.

Robert Johnson said...

Can't compare the two in longevity. Meadow Stable was having serious tax problems and was forced to syndicate Big Red ($6 million). As part of the agreement, his racing career could be no longer than it turned out to be. And these two horses should not even be in the same sentence. Egads!