On Friday, the late Buster Millerick was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Be honest now, before you read about Millerick's accomplishments, how many of you knew anything about him? OK, then, how many knew he trained Native Diver? How many even know who Native Diver is, or the brilliant sprinter Kissin George?
If you live east of the Mississippi River and were unable to raise your hand to any of those questions, then you can have some idea how deep-rooted the so-called "East Coast bias" is to California racing fans, and why they are so vehement and protective of their beloved Zenyatta and her place in history.
For decades, California racing existed in a world apart, far removed from New York's garden of champions that produced the vast majority of Hall of Fame horses. To many New Yorkers, California racing was an afterthought. Sure, they had their heroes - Swaps, The Shoe, Johnny Longden, Silky Sullivan for a brief while, and, yes, Native Diver, a black tornado who blew the roofs off three Hollywood Gold Cups. The days of Seabiscuit were long gone following its frenzied moment in time. But even California's first national hero had raced 47 times before he even set eyes on the Golden State. And once there, he still raced 23 times outside of California, including several excursions to New York.
John Henry became one of the most beloved Californians of all time, but he, like Seabiscuit, was the lost, adopted child they took in after spending most of his life toiling in racing's basements and back alleys. And, also like Seabiscuit, he did quite a bit of traveling, racing 16 times outside of California after arriving at trainer Ron McAnally's barn.
Californians had Precisionist and his epic battles with Greinton, and they had Ancient Title, and Best Pal, and Snow Chief, and Kona Gold, and Lava Man. And how about a California-bred, Tiznow, winning back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics? Northern California had a star sprinter in Lost in the Fog. And there was the first great grass/dirt horse, Round Table, but they had to share this equine vagabond with almost every major racetrack in the country. Another adopted son was Ack Ack, an Eastern-based horse who faded into the shadows of Arts and Letters, Majestic Prince, and Top Knight in 1969, only to find fame and fortune in California two years later.
Only on occasion during the glory days of the 1960s did California fans get a live glimpse of all-time great superstars such as Buckpasser and Damascus, who came west for the Strub Series, or Dr. Fager, who stormed into to town, won the Californian Stakes, and headed right back home. They saw only a shell of what was the real Kelso when the five-time Horse of the Year failed miserably in his only two appearances at Hollywood Park. The following decade, they saw a worn-out Seattle Slew stagger home in his only start in California.
They took great pride when their hometown hero, Majestic Prince, the world's most expensive yearling, journeyed to Louisville and knocked off a small, but star-studded field in the 1969 Kentucky Derby. But unlike their other Derby winners of that time, Swaps, Lucky Debonair and Determine, they never saw "The Prince" again.
Through the 1950s and ‘60s, California racing fans, just as passionate and rabid as New York fans, had to be content cheering on their own, while reading about all the great ones back east in their daily newspapers or in the trade publications. East coast horses rarely journeyed to California after the winter, and those who did stayed only briefly. The fans did reap the rewards of Citation's return to the races after a year's layoff, but again only saw the remnants of what was once one of the great horses of all time.
During the early-to-mid 1970s, Californians never saw Secretariat or Forego or Ruffian unless they traveled back east. They did get an occasional visit from 1970 Horse of the Year and champion grass horse Fort Marcy, who had several memorable battles with West Coasters Fiddle Isle and Cougar II. And they saw 1969 Horse of the Year Arts and Letters once, but he was injured in the Californian and never ran again.
It wasn't until 1978-80 that the folks out west were able to get their fill of great horses such as Affirmed and Spectacular Bid. But once again, these weren't hometown heroes to worship, like Swaps and Native Diver and John Henry, but more like superstars on loan until they returned back east for the big fall championship races.
Ferdinand was a perfect hero for Californians, winning the 1986 Derby for 73-year-old Charlie Whittingham and 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker, two of the most legendary figures in California racing. The following year Ferdinand defeated '87 Derby winner Alysheba by a nose in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the West Coasters went wild. But Alysheba would twice get his revenge on Ferdinand the following winter.
The most heated East vs. West rivalry came in 1989 when the Californians took great satisfaction in seeing Sunday Silence, also trained by Whittingham, then 76, beat the pride of New York, Easy Goer, in three of their four confrontations. This was Charlie and PVal, and for one race, McCarron, taking on the blueblood Phipps establishment. New Yorkers still were convinced Easy Goer was the superior horse, and if there had been an Internet in those days, the verbal battles would have gotten ugly.
California produced several other Kentucky Derby winners, but none they could embrace over a period of time, as horses like A.P. Indy and Point Given would head east to earn their Horse of the Year titles, as would the late-developing Tiznow on two occasions. Except for a brief, unproductive return in a grade III race, their Derby queen, Winning Colors, also deserted them.
Then there were the true-blue California fillies, like Bayakoa, Paseana, Typecast, Flawlessly, and Horse of the Year Azeri. All were charismatic champions, doing the bulk of their racing in California.
But never before have Californians had a hero of the magnitude of Zenyatta. They didn't embrace her; they worshipped her, and defended her as they would any deity. Unlike their previous superstars, Zenyatta has never tasted defeat and each race (16 of the 18 have been in California) has brought her closer to a coveted and unprecedented 20-for-20 career record and being proclaimed the greatest female racehorse of all time. California has never had an equine hometown hero regarded as "THE greatest," although many feel their adopted son, John Henry, is the greatest grass horse of all time.
But, just as was the case with Swaps, who had his Nashua, and Sunday Silence, who had his Easy Goer, and Round Table, who had his Bold Ruler and Gallant Man, and Winning Colors, who had her Personal Ensign, and Native Diver, who had the specter of Kelso hanging over his head for half a decade, Zenyatta had her Rachel Alexandra.
When, in their minds, the "East Coast bias" gave the Horse of the Year title to Rachel, Californians were livid. They felt their hero had been unjustly deprived the national recognition she deserved. Just once, they wanted one of their own - a Californian from start to finish -- to stand alone and capture the hearts of the entire nation. But to the majority of the country, Zenyatta was a TV hero, and even then only if they had TVG or HRTV. Her fans across the country longed to see her in the flesh, but had to be content to thrill to her victories at home. Thus, Zenyatta's heroics never reached the mainstream media as it should have.
After all, Zenyatta has been unlike any other Thoroughbred in memory. Whether she actually possesses human traits or is perceived to possess them, she is the ultimate diva who has entertained her fans like a Ziegfeld ingénue. She not only inspired a toe-tapping Country Western song and video, she even danced to it. She has always known how to work a crowd and work her way into people's hearts.
As she kept winning and winning and winning, anyone was welcome to hop aboard the bandwagon, and thousands did, from big cities to small towns, with the understanding that Zenyatta belonged to California. But many also remained loyal to Rachel Alexandra, which brought about more than a year of Filly Fisticuffs and Matronly Melees. Unfortunately, to this date, those battles have only been fought by proxy off the track and nothing has been settled in the arena. And who knows if it ever will.
Despite Zenyatta's unbeaten record, an unforgettable victory over the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and her occasional heart-throbbing finishes, the poison-dipped arrows kept coming from the East, most of them directed at Zenyatta's connections for going back on their word and keeping her sequestered in California, while running against inferior competition. Zenyatta's followers reacted aggressively and gave as good as they got, often dishing it out with more fervor than the enemy.
Californians couldn't give a hoot about their hero being a homebody. They just wanted to live the Zenyatta experience as often as they could, and it didn't matter in the slightest who the competition was.
How the final chapter will read when Zenyatta's place in history is determined, no one knows. She will go ‘all-in" in her second attempt at the Breeders' Cup Classic, this time traveling back East, running on a strange dirt track, and likely meeting a deeper and more talented field than she did in 2009.
If she can pull if off, Californians finally will have the "greatest ever" horse (in this case a filly) they've been searching for for the past 60 years. Some feel they already have it. Even if she doesn't pull it off, Zenyatta's heroics, as localized as they've been, will forever be part of California racing lore. And over time, her greatness likely will be recognized nationwide even by the skeptics. A defeat in the Classic will not dry the tears of joy Zenyatta's fans - all over the country -- have already shed in bucketfuls.
So, if you're a Zenyatta detractor or a Rachel Alexandra zealot or simply object to the way Zenyatta has been campaigned, let the Californians worship their goddess as they wish. They've been waiting a long time for her.