Don’t Blame Sentiment: Zenyatta Should Be Horse of the Year
Thoroughbred racing, like no other sport, invites the spectator to experience every possible emotion — from awe to grief, from exhilaration to anger — all in an afternoon.
On a good day, we’re in awe of the dazzling 2-year-old that has just blown away the field in his first race. On a bad day, we shed silent tears for the hard-knocking old gelding that has finished the race on three legs, and seethe when we realize he’s been dropped several thousand dollars in claiming price in an attempt to make him somebody else’s problem.
Thoroughbred racing itself has experienced precious few good days in the past decade. Until recently, horses were deemed worthy of a spot on A-1 (as opposed to the sports pages) only when they died from horrific injuries. Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, got his 15 minutes and then some: After breaking his right hind leg in the Preakness, the colt endured a heartrending, eight-month struggle to survive, with hundreds of news outlets capturing every halting step he made in what would ultimately be a futile battle.
For those who view horse racing as a sport rather than a bet (and a horse as an animal rather than a commodity), Zenyatta was the gift that kept on giving: A horse that loved her job so much she danced to work every day. That she burst onto the national scene in the wake of Eight Belles’ tragic breakdown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby is probably just a coincidence. But it was perfect timing. And Zenyatta knows a thing or 19 about perfect timing.
The official chart declares Blame’s win in the 1 ¼-mile Classic by a head over Zenyatta; in truth, it was more like an Eddie Arcaro nose. Regardless, it was the most thrilling Breeders’ Cup finish since the series’ inception in 1984. More important, it exalted Zenyatta, whose critics had decried her as little more than a synthetic track marvel whose connections had cherry-picked her races to keep her undefeated.
In sporting circles, it’s widely acknowledged that jockeys are, pound for pound, the world’s strongest athletes. Anyone who disputes this probably won’t appreciate the superhuman strength it took for Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame jockey with close to 5,000 wins, to make his way to the press room and offer himself up to a firing squad of interrogators after Zenyatta’s first, and only, career loss.
“I feel like I let her down,” Smith said in a quavering voice. “It feels bad because it was my fault. It hurts.”
Actually, it would hurt a lot less if it was Smith’s fault. A horse with Zenyatta’s dramatic, come-from-behind running style is always at risk of coming up just short, even without the traffic problems Smith encountered in the race, and even when … well, even when the horse is Zenyatta.
Smith, who had been criticized for letting Zenyatta lag too far behind the field in her previous races, should not be condemned for her Classic loss. The mare was slow into stride out of the gate, and looked so uncomfortable passing the stands the first time it appeared Smith might pull her up.
One can only imagine the pressure on Smith, who never quite got over Prairie Bayou’s fatal breakdown in the 1993 Belmont, and whose job, above all, is to bring America’s Sweetheart home safely. Primum non nocere … first, do no harm.
The debate over who should be named Horse of the Year — Blame, the Classic winner, won two other Grade I races while Zenyatta won five Grade I’s racing exclusively against females — will continue to rage until the award is presented either to Claiborne Farm’s Seth Hancock (Blame) or Ann and Jerry Moss (Zenyatta) at the Eclipse Award ceremony in Miami Beach, Fla., on Jan. 17.
There are legitimate arguments to support both horses, Blame’s being the strongest on paper in that he prevailed in their only head-to-head meeting. His only loss in 2010 came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he finished second to Haynesfield, a horse that ran next to last in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In financial terms, the award impacts Blame’s career as a stallion much more than it does Zenyatta’s as a broodmare; her foals are more likely to wind up grazing in the Mosses Bel-Air backyard than at auction.
The Horse of the Year is defined as “(any) horse, irrespective of age, whose performance during the racing year is deemed the most outstanding.” This definition shall heretofore be referred to as “the Zenyatta loophole.”
The Zenyatta loophole can be exercised to reward a previously undefeated, record-setting horse who has been an ambassador for the sport (providing that horse’s only loss came by the slimmest of margins to a horse that did not dominate his own division).
It can be employed to compensate a deserving horse for the two previous years that horse should have been named Horse of the Year (especially when last year’s winner did not even show up to run against the deserving horse in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic), applied as a method of honoring the horse’s people for continuing to race her at 6 (while other good horses, like Blame and Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, are routinely retired at 3 or 4), and used to pay homage to a 19-20 record achieved while racing at the sport’s highest level (because when’s THAT ever going to happen again?).
The Zenyatta faithful have taken their case to the Internet, where one hopes the irrational rants will eventually give way to calmer and cogent arguments (although the fact that many of these people can find their keyboards under all the cats is impressive in itself).
The truth is, it would be a damned shame not to see Zenyatta get the award after a glorious, three-year run that put thoroughbred racing in the news for all the right reasons. Those who only recently began following the sport because of this statuesque bay mare with a penchant for Guinness and sweet potatoes must think racing is a pretty big deal.
In one week, Zenyatta was featured on “60 Minutes,” profiled in “Sports Illustrated,” and deemed one of the year’s “Most Influential Women” by Oprah Winfrey. Fans planned trips just to visit the mare in her stable at Hollywood Park, and sent her cards, flowers and treats. They “friended” her on Facebook, watched replays of her races ad nauseum and created their own video tributes, which they then posted on YouTube.
“The public needs to be allowed to get closer to these horses,” said Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, who almost never refused a request for an audience with the queen.
The morning after the Classic, a few emotionally drained stragglers pulled themselves together to attend a fundraiser at Old Friends Retirement Farm just outside Lexington. Home to 107 retired racehorses, Old Friends was founded by Michael Blowen, a retired Boston Globe movie critic and ardent racing fan.
The farm, one of the few that accepts pensioned stallions as retirees, was formed not long after the news broke that the Hancock family’s 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, a stallion at Claiborne Farm for many years, had died in a Japanese slaughterhouse.
As Blowen ambles down the row of pastures, he recounts the story of each retiree, and the circumstances that brought them to Old Friends. Most of the stallions were retired there when they could no longer breed, like Ogygian and Polish Navy, two Claiborne Farm expatriates that were also sold to Japanese interests, but bought back by Old Friends and returned to the U.S. before they could meet the same fate as Ferdinand.
Blowen was asked why the two stallions are living at Old Friends and not Claiborne Farm, which sits on about 3,000 acres in nearby Paris. He shrugs. “I tell the horses’ stories and that’s the deal,” he said. “What I’ve learned over the years is that I don’t go out of my way to alienate anybody, especially when they can influence other people.”
Blowen is happy to heap praise where he feels it is due, and one mention of Ann and Jerry Moss sends him into a rapturous paean. In 2005, when Old Friends was having trouble raising funds, the Mosses sent “a ton of money” along with their old stallion, Ruhlmann. They subsequently sent the gelding Kudos, a multiple stakes winner, and two other horses, always with generous checks to cover their expenses.
“Whenever I have a financial problem, all I have to do is call Jerry,” Blowen said. “He gives us what we need.”
In July, John Shirreffs’ wife, Dottie — the Mosses’ racing manager — called Blowen in a panic: Jerry Moss had discovered that a horse he bred, Falcon Scott, was running for a $2,500 claiming tag at Lincoln Park in Nebraska. Moss had sold the horse, a half-brother to 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, as a stallion prospect three years earlier. The Mosses bought Falcon Scott off the track and sent him to Old Friends “with a pretty big check,” Blowen said.
“I think their affection for the sport of racing extends beyond one or two horses,” Blowen said. “ If you asked Falcon Scott, I think you know who he’d pick for Horse of the Year.”
Back at Churchill Downs, Falcon Scott’s Horse of the Year pick was out of her stall, intermittently grazing and posing for pictures with fans. One woman pushed her 12-year-old daughter’s wheelchair right up next to the mare. Zenyatta looked down at the girl, and gently nuzzled her hair.
Zenyatta’s groom, Mario Espinoza, finally pulled her away from the crowd to ready her for her 8 p.m. flight back to Los Angeles. Zenyatta began walking calmly next to Espinoza, her head hung low … until the clapping began. Startled, she jumped and turned back around to face the crowd. Espinoza put his finger to his lips in a futile attempt to shush the crowd, but they began cheering.
And Zenyatta began to dance. Like a seasoned politician stumping to the very end, Zenyatta bowed her neck, flicked her toes, and danced off into the darkness of Barn 41, pausing once to look back at the crowd with an expression that seemed to say, “You don’t even know how much you’re going to miss me.”
Like hell we don’t.
More like this story