19 Down, 1 To Go: Undefeated Zenyatta Punches Her Ticket for Breeder's Cup
It's the sportswriters' credo: No cheering in the press box.
But does it apply to one who might forfeit a comfortable seat (and a guaranteed panoramic view of the racetrack) to stand among the huddled masses on a balmy California afternoon, risking life, limb, and eardrum just to say, "I was there"?
The ideology is solid, but whoever came up with it probably never saw a horse like Zenyatta, a drama queen of the first order who must have the Barrymores in her pedigree, if not Sarah Bernhardt in her tale-female line.
The doyenne of thoroughbred racing delivered another masterpiece in winning the Oct. 2 Lady's Secret Stakes at Hollywood Park, and gave at least one of the 25,837 in attendance her 19th nervous breakdown.
Employing the trademark running style that served her so well 18 times before, Zenyatta lagged behind her rivals for three-quarters of a mile. The 6-year-old mare trailed by three lengths at the eighth pole, and was still two lengths behind the field with a sixteenth of a mile to go. Switch, a very good 3-year-old filly who was 8 months old when Zenyatta broke her maiden in 2007, was on the lead and not about to go down with a whimper.
For a heartbeat, it looked like the unthinkable might occur: In her final race over her home track, the queen was about to be overthrown. By a horse named Switch.
The shrieking and bellowing left the ears ringing for only a few hours, but the memory of watching Zenyatta lower her head, flick an ear at jockey Mike Smith, and downshift into her GOTCHA! gear will last a lifetime. She ran the last sixteenth of a mile in 5.7 seconds, and sailed under the wire a half-length in front of Switch, her unlucky lady in waiting.
As it turned out, the grandstand - which was brimming with hundreds of Zenyatta zealots - was the place to be for Zenyatta's third straight Lady's Secret victory. The atmosphere gave one the feeling of being digitally inserted into an old-time newsreel, maybe Seabiscuit's 1938 Hollywood Gold Cup triumph, or Chris Evert's 50-length romp over Miss Musket in their 1974 match race.
A cynic might suggest the track's publicity team had put out a call for every available extra in nearby Tinseltown to fill the stands. If that's true, then Hollywood is much deeper in acting talent than its recent spate of Katherine Heigl-anchored films would suggest.
On the grandstand apron, people wearing ZENYATTA baseball caps waved GIRL POWER! signs and hoisted toddlers swathed in various hues of pink. When Smith trotted Zenyatta over to the cheap seats to take a bow, the crowd erupted in screams and piercing shrieks reminiscent of the reception greeting John, Paul, George and Ringo when they touched down at Idlewild in 1964.
Her place in racing history is assured, and her 19-0 record is unlikely to ever be threatened. But Zenyatta's legacy is not one that can be measured in the times of her races, the champions she has defeated or a Horse of the Year title that might have been.
What this leggy bay mare with the tornado-shaped blaze has done for thoroughbred racing cannot be reduced to numbers. Her charisma, her outsized personality, the preening toe dance that has become her signature ... and all of it seems to be self-generated. As Dottie Shirreffs, the wife of Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, likes to say: "She came with her own marketing plan."
But not everyone has fallen under Zenyatta's spell. An Eastern-based writer who shall heretofore be known as "The Great Handicapper" - author Carol Flake referred to him as such in her excellent book, "Tarnished Crown" - came to Hollywood Park, sans bulletproof vest, for a pre-race paddock commentary on the day of the Lady's Secret.
Earlier in the week, the Great Handicapper had written that he "could not put Zenyatta on a list of all-time great racehorses," largely "because 17 of her victories were over synthetic surfaces."
"It is a dubious distinction to be the poster girl for the surfaces that have the robbed the sport here of its unique character," the Great Handicapper wrote, adding that Zenyatta was "apt to be regarded as a historical curiosity rather than an all-time great racehorse."
The Great Handicapper may have cited figures to support this assertion during his paddock discussion, but the incessant booing drowned out whatever point he was trying to make.
It wasn't the first time the Great Handicapper had dissed California racing's Golden Girl.
On Nov. 6, 2009 - the day before Zenyatta became ZENYATTA! by virtue of her epic win over males in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic - the Great Handicapper wrote this: "Zenyatta's no Rachel Alexandra, and she isn't the horse to beat in the Breeders' Cup Classic."
Rachel Alexandra, who would be voted 2009 Horse of the Year over Zenyatta in balloting that proved to be strictly partisan, had not been entered in the Classic at Santa Anita because of its all-weather synthetic track; Rachel's owner, Jess Jackson, has been a harsh critic of artificial surfaces and refused to run his filly on them.
In his column last week, the Great Handicapper opined that if Zenyatta's connections had "gone East to confront a below-her-prime Rachel Alexandra this summer, she might have won the Zenyatta vs. Rachel debate once and for all." The Great Handicapper fails to mention one important fact. Zenyatta was primed for a matchup with Rachel in the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park (on a dirt track); Rachel's connections withdrew her from the race after a drubbing at the hooves of Zardana - a second stringer from the Shirreffs barn - in the March 13 New Orleans Ladies Stakes.
The Great Handicapper and others like him provide an invaluable service to racing fans and serious bettors. Through a system involving class rankings, pace and speed figures, surface discrepancies and other concrete elements, they have devised a formula that gives one enough information to, in fact, beat the system. It would be impossible to find a horseplayer who doesn't venture into betting territory armed with some form of speed figures or "the sheets."
Twenty-four hours after Zenyatta's California swan song, only 5,047 patrons turned out for Hollywood Park's Sunday card. The sea of pink had given way to the muted shades favored by serious horseplayers, i.e., the ones who will still be around long after Zenyatta and her devotees are gone.
What infuriates the Zenyatta faithful - and what makes a meeting of the minds over these two approaches unlikely - is that the "nuts and bolts" guys fail to incorporate what is perhaps the most valuable handicapping tool of all: the "want," as Zenyatta's exercise rider, Steve Willard, puts it.
Failure to acknowledge that Zenyatta might simply have more determination, more fight - more heart, as it were - is to completely ignore what makes her a legitimate all-time great.
And it disregards the quality Zenyatta's fans love most about her.
Even if she wins the Nov. 6 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs - her last race before retirement - and closes out her career with a 20-for-20 record, there will still be nonbelievers, skeptics who hint that she should enter the Racing Hall of Fame with an asterisk by her name. Or refer to her contemporaries as "moderate competition" when in fact many were graded stakes winners (or stakes-placed) and most are long retired.
Interestingly, many of Zenyatta's detractors also maintain that Alydar was a better horse than Affirmed, or that Easy Goer was superior in every way to Sunday Silence. These naysayers will never venture over to the dark bay side, and it's no use trying to make them see what they can't feel.
"I think some people in life have to measure things in numbers," Dottie Shirreffs said. "The fact that she's up for so many debates means she's made an impact. To have her in people's minds, where they really are discussing it ... it does keep the passion alive."
On a patch of grass outside the Shirreffs barn, a gaggle of sportswriters violated their own code as, one by one, each stepped forward to pose for a photo with Zenyatta, who seemed happy to oblige.
Zenyatta's groom, Mario Espinoza, unfurled a garden hose to begin running warm water for her bubble bath. Her masseuse, Michelle Jensen, would soon come by to give Zenyatta a relaxing massage, and somewhere, the mare's daily Guinness was chilling.
It's good to be queen. But on this day, it felt pretty good to be a commoner, too.
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