November 8, 2009

Z is for Zenyatta

Santa Anita was afire with more excitement and emotion yesterday than has been seen in thoroughbred horse racing in a long, long time. If Rachel Alexandra raised the rafters when she beat older males in the Woodward at Saratoga, then Zenyatta made the earth quake in the California sun as she rumbled through and then around the best males America had to offer. Make no mistake, her win in the 26th running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was as awesome as it was historical. The legendary mare ran a legendary race and it left every single race fan who saw the race awe inspired.

It was hard not to root for the Amazon Queen as the running unfolded. Track announcer Trevor Denman played to the desires of the delirious crowd as he paid close attention to every move that Zenyatta would make. After dawdling her first quarter in 27 seconds, the engine began to churn and the wheels began to roll. Picking off horses just as she as always done, Mike Smith steered the massive mare through traffic and finally swung her out to the middle of the track. A confident ride by a jockey who has all the belief in the world in his horse. The world watched breathlessly as the dark bay mare was in full flight on the far outside. The best older male in the nation, Gio Ponti had run a great race to briefly take over, but the rush Zenyatta was uncorking was irresistible and the raucous ovation began. She proved best by one length, but it did not seem that close. Final time was 2:00.62, meaning Zenyatta had sprinted the final mile in 1:33 and 3/5. On this extraordinary day, Zenyatta gave everyone witnessing more than could have been hoped for. The Classic win places a resounding exclamation point on a career of perfection.

It all began for Zenyatta when the daughter of Street Cry was purchased by Jerry & Ann Moss for the bargain price of $60,000 four years ago and placed in the capable hands of experienced conditioner John Shirreffs. Zenyatta was allowed to develop and grow into her massive frame. She was always held in high regard by her connections and they should be applauded for their patience in holding her away from the races until the Fall of her 3-year-old season. On the 22nd of November, 2007, the world would get their first glimpse of greatness. In that Maiden race at Hollywood Park, Zenyatta would find herself last in a twelve horse field early on. Any concern would be short lived, as she would impressively sweep past the entire field. From that auspicious beginning, Zenyatta would go on to repeat the performance race in and race out. It made little matter as the level of competition rose, culminating with yesterday’s history making win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Historically speaking, Zenyatta has run by her competition much the way she has done in every one of her races. You would be hard pressed to find an older mare in our sport who has done more than what she has accomplished. Zenyatta is perfect in fourteen races, the last twelve being in Grade 1’s or Grade 2’s. She is a Breeder’s Cup Ladies Classic champion and is the first female ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Zenyatta will soon become a two time Eclipse Award winner, and in so doing, has eclipsed her closest comparison in racing history. Personal Ensign completed her magnificent career twenty years ago a perfect 13 for 13, but her one Eclipse Award as outstanding handicap mare, an exciting win in the Breeder‘s Cup Distaff, one win against the males in the sloppy Whitney, and ten graded stakes no longer can quite stack up to what Zenyatta has now achieved. There can no longer be a reasonable argument against her greatness.

It is true that all but one of Zenyatta’s wins have come away from Southern California, but with Santa Anita being the home of the Breeders’ Cup the past two years, there simply was not a great reason to leave one of America’s racing hubs. She has also raced all but once on her familiar synthetic surfaces of her Pacific home. With the important place synthetic racing holds in current American racing, it would not be fair to discount her accomplishments for running most of her races on the non-dirt surfaces. Remember also, that Zenyatta’s one foray on a dirt track is one of her most impressive wins, when she easily beat the champion Ginger Punch at Oaklawn Park. The facts show that she has beaten most of the top males in the United States and all of the top fillies and mares of the past few years save Rachel Alexandra.

It matters little whether you prefer Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra. They are both astonishing in their abilities. Nor does it matter whether she races ever again. Her legend is set in stone. Today is about Zenyatta, for yesterday was something very special. Zenyatta is the kind of horse and the Classic was the kind of race that the racing industry can celebrate in everything that is wonderful about the sport. All hail the Amazon Queen, all hail the mighty Zenyatta.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, I couldn't agree more. I actually got the chance to go on Saturday, and it is something I will never forget!

Even being a huge Z fan, I still think Rachel is HOY...but that's okay. Like you said, Zenyatta's legacy is set in stone.

NetworkEmpowerment said...

Today is the one day I REFUSE to debate about horse of the year. In every single race I defended RA, maybe even to the point of rudeness. I defended her even though the fields she beat may have been suspect, and now I will do the same for Zenyatta. Sure, the class of the race may not have shown their best race, sure some of the east and euros may not have like the surface, but the fact remains that she WON. She is a lengend and one for the ages. Because of this I refuse to debate about the two anymore both are fantastic, beautiful, brilliant mares and to belittle them is a crime.

Unknown said...

Poetic, heart-warming tribute. I latched onto Zen last yr from season 1 of Jockeys. I was totally blown away!
Thanks, Brian, good write! :)

Jennifer Cook said...

I hadn't thought about how Zenyatta's foray to Oaklawn Park helps to diminish the argument that she could only deliver such performances on synthetics. Thanks for pointing that out. You express so deftly what we are all thinking and feeling. I especially like this line: 'The Classic win places a resounding exclamation point on a career of perfection.' I have been wanting to stretch out this pure Zenyatta joy as much as I can, and your column is a perfect way to do that.

It was nice remembering the Apple Blossom Handicap. I had to watch the video to bring it back - I was rooting for Brownie Points! I was convinced she had it, and then Zenyatta came sweeping past. We couldn't have know then that she would close every race this way, right up to last evening. Amazing!

I feel a little sad with the ending of this season. My comfort is knowing we all get to see the beautiful Rachel race again next year. Who is horse of the year? I'm sure glad I'm just a fan, and I don't have to decide.

Anonymous said...

I am in awe of Mike Smith and Zenyatta-what a team! And to quote Mike "...I never got her out of 3rd gear!"

Celeste said...

Wonderful, Brian! A beautiful tribute to the great Zenyatta! Thank you.