December 14, 2010

Zenyatta and the Ghost of Native Dancer

The parallels are frightening. Two of the most popular horses in modern history were perfect examples of power and athleticism. They did not need to win by ten lengths to prove their superiority over their peers. They raced, and they won. Time and time again, they won. Native Dancer, and then Zenyatta nearly 60 years later, were perfect. Or at least as perfect as we could hope our thoroughbred stars to be. You know the old saying about history repeating itself. It seems as if the race of the year, maybe the race so far of the 21st century, was just a little bit of history repeating. As if somehow haunted by the Grey Ghost, Zenyatta fell victim to the racing gods that evening at Churchill Downs, and poof, just like that, her undefeated career went up in smoke.

We all know her story … from 2007 through 2010, Zenyatta won her first 19 races. She entered her final career race with all the fanfare of a rock star. She danced and pranced her way into the public consciousness, and into their hearts as well. Zenyatta is as popular as any race horse has been in at least 30 years. The Breeders’ Cup crowd was bubbling over with anticipation and excitement to see her succeed and head off into the sunset untethered by a single defeat. As it had been 57 years earlier for Native Dancer. He was racing’s first television star. American household’s welcomed him into their living rooms on a regular basis. The Kentucky Derby of 1953 may not have been his final race of his career, but it was the most important. Undefeated and Horse of the Year as a juvenile, the Grey Ghost stormed into Louisville as the people’s horse. He was unblemished through eleven races. The Run for the Roses was destined to be his. It was not.



The twin spires proved to be a harsh defender of the sacred undefeated career for Native Dancer. The great colt would rebound in his next ten races to retire with 21 wins in 22 career starts. His name will forever be included in the pantheon of all-time greats, but still I wonder, what if. What if he had been able to start rolling just a few strides earlier? What if he had been able to eclipse that pesky Dark Star? How would Native Dancer be remembered now?

No one blames Dark Star. He was a very good horse who ran a great Kentucky Derby. On that day, he won the race. Flash forward to modern day, and I do not blame Blame. He is a good horse. A very, very good horse. Better than Dark Star was, but still, he will never be remembered like Zenyatta will be. He won the race fair and square, but as in 1953, Zenyatta was so very close.



In the end it was one desperate head that broke up the perfect game for Zenyatta, as it had for Native Dancer. Both met their demise under the famed twin spires of Churchill Downs on the biggest of days. So very close to perfection, but not meant to be. Was Zenyatta done in by the curse of Native Dancer? Maybe. I will leave you with this one last thought … Native Dancer was denied the Horse of the Year award in 1953, because of that one heartbreaking, and narrow defeat. Well that, and a superlative season by Tom Fool. Something tells me that Zenyatta will not be so cursed.

29 comments:

markinsac said...

are you saying Zenyatta is favored over Blame for the HOTY award, in your opinion?

Brian Zipse said...

Absolutely Mark.

Ann K. said...

What a spectacular article Brian. Very well done and I love this clip on Native Dancer. Kudo's to you for giving Zenyatta her due respect.

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Ann, I am glad that you enjoyed reading!

markinsac said...

You know how I feel about Zenyatta, but even I have my doubts, Brian. What leads you to your opinion? Remember, most of the voters are in the east . . .

darlene said...

Thanks so much for the newsreel clip of the day and race that hooked me forever.Seven years old,a 10 inch black and white round screen tv and a beautiful gray horse giving all he had.I cried but I knew I wanted more of this sport of racing

Anonymous said...

For some reason whenever someone says Blame beat her "fair and square" it doesn't sit well with me. I agree, in that he won the race and did nothing to interfere with Zenyatta. But like Dark Star with The Grey Ghost, Blame didn't beat Zenyatta because he was a better horse, but because he got a better trip. Had Zenyatta been given as fair of a trip as Blame and Blame still beat her, then I'd agree with the phrase "fair and square".

In regards to HOTY Brian, do you think that Zenyatta will get the award. I know you think she deserves it and I agree with you, but do you think that the voters will actually go with Zenyatta?

Brian Zipse said...

Awesome Darlene! Statements like that are the wings beneath my writing.

I really believe Zenyatta will win, and that she deserves the award. The voters are commensurate with the racetrack population of the country. Would you categorize me as in the East?

Anonymous said...

Well, you're from Chicago right? It's not East Coast, but it's East.

markinsac said...

Brian, you may be the exception to the rule. You know your horse racing from all around the country. But let's face it, most don't and vote on a regional basis. Even the west coast is biased, but outnumbered.

Lorrae said...

Anything East of Cali is suspect. I'm from Texas but she gets my vote.
Someone recently told me that the sound of the hoofbeats as they run past on the track is an orgasmic feeling for them. Maybe that's why I'm still single. All I know is that if there was no racing then people like me and Darlene might just wither and die. God save the thoroughbreds.

darlene said...

No you are awesome Brian for bringing the races and horses and memories to us And to Lorrae I am so worried about the state of racing now and the fact that IT may wither and die

Lorrae said...

Yeh Darlene, what's wrong with the geese running this show. Let's all write to Rupert Murdoch and ask/beg/plead for more racing coverage. It's only thru horses like Zenyatta, Rachel, Blame etc being promoted by the media (and not just the print media either) do we see an upsurge in the popularity of racing. We have a bad image in our sport but that can be turned around if the right people are hired to promote it to the public at large. If bowling, darts, soccer and all the other snoozefests can be shown on TV why not racing? At least you would stay awake. I challenge anyone to sleep during a horse race.
Don't let racing die here. Look around the world at the popularity of horse racing. Try getting a field of 24 horses here like they get in the Melbourne Cup every year. I better shut up now. But hell, I'm gonna keep ranting till someone notices what's happening with our racing.

Jennifer said...

I enjoyed this article a lot, Brian. As always, beautifully written. :)

markinsac said...

I think horse racing has failed because so many who run the show still think they have a monopoly on gambling like they did in the '70's. Today, gamblers have the knowlege to make choices. "Where does my betting buck have the best chance to survive?" Sadly, betting on horses is the WORSSE choice one could make. If I bet on a football game against the spread, the house edge is 4.5%. Blackjack, 1%, poker can vary, but can be as little as 1%. The horse races? Try 20%, and that doesn't include the average cost of $5 for parking, $5 for admission and $6 for a form. If I go to the races just on weekends, it costs me $1,664 on admission, parking and forms BEFORE I MAKE MY FIRST BET!

THEN I HAVE TO BATTLE A 20% TAKEOUT.

Brian, i'm hoping you can devote a day to address all this. THIS IS WHY HORSE RACING IS FAILING. THEY DON'T WANT TO COMPETE. HECK, THOSE WHO MAKE THE DECISIONS NEVER PAY FOR PARKING OR ADMISSION OR A FORM, THEY JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND.

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Jennifer! Keep up the great work on your site, as well. ;-)

Point very well taken, Mark ... and I will.

Sherry said...

Wow....great article Brian! I love the stories you put together...it shows a lot of hard work and dedication you have for racing...Keep it up!

luvzenyatta said...

Always love your articles Zatt and enjoy the website. After all I've read and seen I hold out absolutely no hope for Zenyatta to win the well-deserved HOTY. Such a shame that they will deny her and it will be for all the wrong reasons. I wanted the fairy tale ending like everyone else and have cried my eyes out for many days now. For whatever reason, CD curse maybe, which I can't figure out, she lost by a head in her greatest performance. I definitely feel different about racing now, the excitement and giddyness of watching every Zenny video, reading every article, and counting down the days to every race is gone. I will follow every tiny detail of her life but her life isn't racing now so I guess I will not be as into that as I have been for so long. Long live Zenyatta! She truly brought new life and happiness to our sport and we all (almost all) fell deeply in love with her.
P.S. I guess I'm not a total loss, Turbulent Descent has 3 down and 16 to go and I find Awesome Feather pretty exciting too:)

ponygirl0nj said...

Nice article Brian! Enjoyed the comparison. I would love to see her get HOTY, but I'm so doubtful it will happen. Too many believe it is black and white, Blame won & Zenyatta lost. When I watch the race I see more than who crossed the line first. I see what she overcame to even get there. In my opinion, no other horse could have duplicated her performance, not even Blame. It is my understanding that the HOTY award goes to the greatest of that year and I think she proved she was it, even though she lost the race by a head.

Deltalady said...

I'm so glad you brought this story about Native Dancer's 1953 season to the fore, because I have used the awarding of the HOTY to him in 1954 as one of the times that the award was given not for current year performance but for a career:

As you no doubt know, Brian, in 1954, he won one allowance race in April, the Met Mile in May, and a 7f handicap in August and then was re-injured and retired. Native Dancer was the first television superstar. He won Horse of the Year in 1954 for his CAREER and his contribution to racing - not what he did or didn't do on the track that year. And rightly so.

I dug around for this story to offer those who keep trying to say that it's wrong to consider anything other than the current year performance some examples that, as the award has NO OFFICIAL LANGUAGE OR CRITERIA, the award can be made for whatever reason the voter may choose to use.

I've encountered a lot of arrogance among the DRF group, and many in the Turf Writers group, as well. At the DRF site, one person had the arrogance to say they would be glad when the award was finally past, so all these new fans would be gone! I did a follow up to my post and suggested that those who might agree with this unfortunate remark might want to look in the mirror for the reason the industry is in trouble. Ann Maree

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks for the kind words, guys!

Ann Maree, you make a fabulous point about the Dancer winning HoY with only 3 starts as a 4yo. Certainly this has to be considered more hope for the Zenyatta for HoY supporters. As for the unfortunate comment, I like it no more than you did.

Icyhotboo said...

"East Coast Bias" I am sick to death of hearing that lame statement. I live in New York State. In 2008 I felt Curlin deserved the award he got. In 2009 I felt the same about Rachel although I felt a valid case could be made for Zenyatta and if Z did get it so what it was close.Now were here in 2010 and I am a person living on the east coast along with many of my friends just don't understand these statements like "Zenyatta haters". It may interest you to know that she is as popular here as on the west coast. You don't believe it huh? Consider this, were all human no matter where we live,love horses as much as "west Coast People" do and this year Zenyatta will be awarded the HOTY award she has earned.

Deltalady said...

P.S.: I actually read a followup to my post at the DRF which said, in part that Native Dancer didn't deserve the award that year and let's not make the same mistake again! And, "I'll gladly stick my finger in the eyes of the Zenyatta fans, they've set back racing 20 years."

Just had to share that bit of wisdom! lol

Congratulations on a new and exciting phase of your career. Best of luck. Ann Maree

Anonymous said...

of course Native Dancer ran against quality fields in all of his races

Hugh said...

That was a great comparison. It was said on the last "And They're Off" that the only people who really matter about Horse of the Year are the owners, and that is correct. We, as people who who adore the horses, can only hope for the best. Yes, they are 2(Blame and Zenyatta) great horses, but this is a yearly prize. Maybe they should add an Eclipse Award for "Best For The Industry". Than we know who would win. Thanks.

treasure said...

Native Dancer was also my first love at age 13, Zenyatta is my most recent. I feel strongly about this HOTY and the competition they all faced. I maintain that her competition is not much worse than anyone elses, even if they were females in what tends to look be looking like a slightly chauvinistic debate.
*To understand how I feel about competition please give some serious thought to the below before the 2010 BC CLasiic. (Possibly there may have been Gr 1 winners in some of these races but Horse Racing Nation charts only give the first 3 placements and they certainly were not in the money)

Blame in 2010.
Beat Advantage (2nd to Blame) I assume he must have broken his maiden, but could not find a win for this guy)
Won the SF over Battle Plan who won a Gr 2
Defeated Quality Road (Gr1) just barely while getting 5 pounds from him.
Was beaten 4 lengths by Haynesfield who has won a Gr 2 and a Gr 3 and won the JCGC over Blame.

Quality Road in 2010 beat
You and I Forever (2nd to QR) won a Gr 2 and a Gr 3, 3rd in the race was Motavato
Mythical Power (2nd to QR) Won two Gr 3 stakes in 2 years
Musket Man (2nd to QR and 3rd to QR and Blame) In two years - in 09 won a Gr3 and a Gr 2, and in ’10 won an ungraded Stake.

Zenyatta in 2010
Defeated Zardana, Gr 2 winner who defeated in 2010 the HOTY (while they were both 10 in front of the field)
Defeated St Trinians, Gr 2 winner but she had defeated in 2010 the multiple Gr 1 winning Life Is Sweet who won the 09 BC Ladies Classic
Defeated Switch, Gr 2 winner but she had defeated in 2010 the likely 3 yr old Eclipse filly multiple Gr 1 winning Blind Luck and the Gr 1 winning Evening Jewel. .(and also was 2nd in a BC race)
Defeated Just Jenda, also multiple Gr 2 winner.

So can you understand why I question competition or lack of when everyone says Blame beat the better horses. (they were better because they were MALES?) I’m sorry I just don’t see it.

In 6 races as a 6 yr old in 2010 she shipped East twice, once to Oaklawn, once to Churchill.
There is the weight carried, how many times did Blame run this year with 127 or 129 pounds, giving away 8 to 17 pounds to Gr 2 horses?? Oh, QR gave HIM 5 pounds?
Now tell me that Zenyatta did not defeat QR, LAL, Haynesfield, Musket Man, Paddy O Prado and etc in the Classic? I beg to state that she finished way ahead of them all also, beat them the same number of lengths as Blame and it should count. She passed every last one of them flying down that stretch except one. Yes, Blame, who was tooth and nail to hold her off to the wire with his ears pinned flat, and he won by mere inches only.

Garwilt said...

Thanksgiving Day 2007 A long, gangly 17 hands high filly steps on the track at Hollywood Park for her first race and a short while later the beginning of a legend has been born. That legend is none other than the great Zenyatta who would be victorious in 19 of 20 starts, all in graded stakes company except the first. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation had been searching and longing for a horse that they could call America"s horse, that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation would dream of a champion that would be most consistent every time he/she stepped on the track, that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation dreamed of a horse that would compete and be victorious at the highest level of competition (Breeders Cup champion), that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation longed for a horse that would introduce new fans to our sport and game, that horse would be Zenyatta. And for over forty years America"s horseracing nation dreamed of a champion that would continue to race after winning the big one, and again that horse would be the mighty mare Zenyatta (competed thoughout her six year old season.) Each year building on and adding to her legendary status. By the time that she retired she had amassed a total of twenty starts with nineteen of them wins and one a second by the smallest of margins. Out of the nineteen wins, thirteen or fourteen were grade ones in which two came in the Breeders Cup, the Ladies Classic and the richest of all, the Breeders Cup Classic itself. She made history in 2009 by becoming the first filly or mare to ever win the Classic and came within a diminishing head/nose of repeating the feat in 2010.

Zenyatta transcended greatness and became larger than the horse herself and yes she answered the call of the horseracing nation and became AMERICA"S HORSE!

It is all these things that make her great but it is her body of work this year that should make her Horse of the Year. She has 5 grade ones wins and came within a diminishing head/nose of having six. The single lose came in the richest race in America and against the toughest competition that could be assembled in the Breeders Cup Classic. That is more then any other contender. Her antics of playing to the fans by two stepping and pawing the ground before and after the race sucked fans in by the thousands both on and off track, and once you were pulled in by this mighty mare there were no getting out and her last to first style of mowing down her rivals cemented the deal. For her fans it was thrills and for her detractors it was chills but for all it was the display of pure race horse power. A degree of power that may not ever be witnessed again. Yes it is the mighty mare, the great Zenyatta who should be Horse of the Year!

Fifty years from now when these new fans are asked: Who was the greatest horse that they ever seen step foot on a race track? The answer will undoubtedly be: ZENYATTA!!!!!!!!!!
....Tomac (Wilt)

Garwilt said...

Thanksgiving Day 2007 A long, gangly 17 hands high filly steps on the track at Hollywood Park for her first race and a short while later the beginning of a legend has been born. That legend is none other than the great Zenyatta who would be victorious in 19 of 20 starts, all in graded stakes company except the first. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation had been searching and longing for a horse that they could call America"s horse, that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation would dream of a champion that would be most consistent every time he/she stepped on the track, that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation dreamed of a horse that would compete and be victorious at the highest level of competition (Breeders Cup champion), that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation longed for a horse that would introduce new fans to our sport and game, that horse would be Zenyatta. And for over forty years America"s horseracing nation dreamed of a champion that would continue to race after winning the big one, and again that horse would be the mighty mare Zenyatta (competed thoughout her six year old season.) Each year building on and adding to her legendary status. By the time that she retired she had amassed a total of twenty starts with nineteen of them wins and one a second by the smallest of margins. Out of the nineteen wins, thirteen or fourteen were grade ones in which two came in the Breeders Cup, the Ladies Classic and the richest of all, the Breeders Cup Classic itself. She made history in 2009 by becoming the first filly or mare to ever win the Classic and came within a diminishing head/nose of repeating the feat in 2010.

Zenyatta transcended greatness and became larger than the horse herself and yes she answered the call of the horseracing nation and became AMERICA"S HORSE!

It is all these things that make her great but it is her body of work this year that should make her Horse of the Year. She has 5 grade ones wins and came within a diminishing head/nose of having six. The single lose came in the richest race in America and against the toughest competition that could be assembled in the Breeders Cup Classic. That is more then any other contender. Her antics of playing to the fans by two stepping and pawing the ground before and after the race sucked fans in by the thousands both on and off track, and once you were pulled in by this mighty mare there were no getting out and her last to first style of mowing down her rivals cemented the deal. For her fans it was thrills and for her detractors it was chills but for all it was the display of pure race horse power. A degree of power that may not ever be witnessed again. Yes it is the mighty mare, the great Zenyatta who should be Horse of the Year!

Fifty years from now when these new fans are asked: Who was the greatest horse that they ever seen step foot on a race track? The answer will undoubtedly be: ZENYATTA!!!!!!!!!!
....Tomac (Wilt)

Garwilt said...

Thanksgiving Day 2007 A long, gangly 17 hands high filly steps on the track at Hollywood Park for her first race and a short while later the beginning of a legend has been born. That legend is none other than the great Zenyatta who would be victorious in 19 of 20 starts, all in graded stakes company except the first. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation had been searching and longing for a horse that they could call America"s horse, that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation would dream of a champion that would be most consistent every time he/she stepped on the track, that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation dreamed of a horse that would compete and be victorious at the highest level of competition (Breeders Cup champion), that horse would be Zenyatta. For over forty years America"s horseracing nation longed for a horse that would introduce new fans to our sport and game, that horse would be Zenyatta. And for over forty years America"s horseracing nation dreamed of a champion that would continue to race after winning the big one, and again that horse would be the mighty mare Zenyatta (competed thoughout her six year old season.) Each year building on and adding to her legendary status. By the time that she retired she had amassed a total of twenty starts with nineteen of them wins and one a second by the smallest of margins. Out of the nineteen wins, thirteen or fourteen were grade ones in which two came in the Breeders Cup, the Ladies Classic and the richest of all, the Breeders Cup Classic itself. She made history in 2009 by becoming the first filly or mare to ever win the Classic and came within a diminishing head/nose of repeating the feat in 2010.

Zenyatta transcended greatness and became larger than the horse herself and yes she answered the call of the horseracing nation and became AMERICA"S HORSE!

It is all these things that make her great but it is her body of work this year that should make her Horse of the Year. She has 5 grade ones wins and came within a diminishing head/nose of having six. The single lose came in the richest race in America and against the toughest competition that could be assembled in the Breeders Cup Classic. That is more then any other contender. Her antics of playing to the fans by two stepping and pawing the ground before and after the race sucked fans in by the thousands both on and off track, and once you were pulled in by this mighty mare there were no getting out and her last to first style of mowing down her rivals cemented the deal. For her fans it was thrills and for her detractors it was chills but for all it was the display of pure race horse power. A degree of power that may not ever be witnessed again. Yes it is the mighty mare, the great Zenyatta who should be Horse of the Year!

Fifty years from now when these new fans are asked: Who was the greatest horse that they ever seen step foot on a race track? The answer will undoubtedly be: ZENYATTA!!!!!!!!!!
....Tomac (Wilt)