John Steinbeck wrote, “Somewhere in the world there is a defeat for everyone…Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.”
Whether or not you consider California Chrome, Songbird, Tepin, Lady Eli, and Found great horses, there is no arguing that greatness lives in all of them, whether they were defeated in the Breeders’ Cup or not.
Racing fans today as a whole seem to have more passion and affection for their equine heroes, and thus take defeats harder, especially the close gut-wrenching defeats such as the ones suffered by Chrome, Songbird, Tepin, and Lady Eli, all of whom ran winning races, but were beaten right on the wire. To say they were gallant in defeat would be minimizing just how courageous their efforts were.
I know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see a horse who means a great to you lose in heartbreaking fashion. I first felt it in 1967 when my beloved Damascus was beaten a nose by Fort Marcy in the Washington D.C. International, even though it was his first ever race on turf and he was beaten by one of the great turf horses of his era and a future Hall of Famer.
I felt it when my next favorite horse, Arts and Letters, was beaten in photo finishes by Majestic Prince in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and felt it again in 1974 when Little Current, a horse I photographed and followed from the time he was a baby at Darby Dan Farm, lost back-to-back heartbreaking nose decisions to Holding Pattern in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap and Travers Stakes, his explosive stretch run falling inches short both times.
When I became a professional writer I was determined to remain objective and not take defeats so hard. After all, in many cases I had to cover the race and write about the winner in a positive, upbeat fashion.
But that didn’t stop the knots and butterflies from forming in my stomach on the day a horse I felt extremely close to was racing.
Today’s racing fans wear their hearts on their sleeve and defend their heroes with a fervor you rarely see in other sports. Because of the emotional bond they form with a particular horse, they take criticism of that horse personally. When they witness their hero go down to defeat, despite their valiant effort, it hurts for a while, but they soon are able to put it in perspective, and in many cases are drawn even closer to that horse.
The defeat that crushed more racing fans than any in memory was Smarty Jones’ loss in the Belmont Stakes when he appeared to be on the threshold of immortality as he bounded away from his field at the five-sixteenths pole. People in the grandstand were already screaming and flailing their arms in victory, knowing they were some 25 seconds away from witnessing history. But then came that horrible sinking feeling again, even more so than the one many felt when the popular Silver Charm lost his crown in the shadow of the wire.
They had gone through it with Real Quiet by the scantest of noses and again the following year watching Charismatic pull up after faltering in the final sixteenth and being taken away in an ambulance. Barbaro, of course, never got a chance to win or lose the Preakness, but that is venturing off on another track.
When Birdstone passed the undefeated Smarty Jones in the final furlong of the Belmont Stakes, a deafening hush fell over the record 120,000 fans in attendance. Many in the stunned crowd had their hands over their faces, tears streaming down their cheeks. I knew how they felt. I felt it, too. But I had the task of turning the race into something resembling a feel-good story focusing on the gutsy and diminutive Birdstone. But my heart broke for Smarty and for all his devoted fans. To this day, 12 years later, there are many who cannot or will not watch that race.
The same can emphatically be said for Zenyatta’s devastating defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, her final race following a 19-race unbeaten career. It would be difficult for anyone to name a horse who had as zealous and widespread a following as this mighty mare. History has seen equine idols such as the short-lived reign of Silky Sullivan and, of course, Seabiscuit, and then Kelso. But those were the days when personal scrapbooks were the only outlet for releasing one’s passion and affection. Young fans rejoiced in silence.
Zenyatta filled the social media world with her all-encompassing presence. Facebook and Twitter became convention halls where fans could meet and interact, and any disparaging words directed at Zenyatta were dealt with harshly by her fans.
The majority of Zenyatta’s faithful still treat the replay of her agonizing defeat at the hands of Blame like the plague. It has been permanently quarantined, forever out of sight and out of mind. Some have managed to come to terms with it, but it still hurts to relive it.
And so, as the 2016 Breeders’ Cup arrived, with it came an array of equine heroes unlike anything ever seen before. Chromies came from all over the country to the Great Race Place to see the majestic California Chrome in the flesh, while the remaining loyal legions of fans gathered around their televisions, anxiously waiting to cheer their hero’s long-awaited victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
This is the era of super fillies from all over the world – North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, among others. Never before had so many fillies and mares dominated racing and become national heroines in their home country, some venturing to other continents, where their legend grew.
Three of those heroines, based in the United States, were competing in the Breeders’ Cup. There was Lady Eli and her remarkable story, returning to the races after surviving a battle with the dreaded disease laminitis that had claimed so many of the sport’s great horses. Surviving laminitis was rare. Returning to the races and actually being as productive as before was unheard of.
There was Tepin, who put together a thrilling string of victories, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile, before journeying to Royal Ascot this spring, where she defeated Europe’s top milers in the group I Queen Anne Stakes, despite racing for the first time over an undulating demanding straight course on soft ground. She returned to the States the conquering hero, and after taking a while to bounce back from the arduous trip, she traveled up to Canada where she again defeated most of the top male milers in the rich Woodbine Mile. Like Lady Eli she was now trying for her second Breeders’ Cup victory.
And last, but certainly not least, there was the exciting undefeated 3-year-old filly Songbird, with the sweet-sounding name, who had won all 11 of her career starts without ever being threatened in the stretch, winning by an average margin of almost six lengths. Not since Ruffian had we seen such total domination over so many races. It was Songbird who helped her owner, Rick Porter, in his struggle with cancer and nearly dying from an infection that went to his heart. As Songbird won the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, doctors were trying to save her owner’s life. It was touch and go for a while, but Porter had no intentions of dying while his amazing filly of a lifetime was still performing miracles on the racetrack. Now in much better health, Porter was ready for Songbird’s crowning victory against former champions Beholder and Stellar Wind.
As we all know, the multitude of fans of all three fillies, and California Chrome fans, and racing fans in general, received not one, but four kicks in the gut, as each one was nailed right on the wire after running their hearts out. What eased Songbird’s loss was the epic battle the length of the stretch and the popularity of the victorious Beholder, who became the first horse to win three different Breeders’ Cup races, and doing it at ages 2,3, and 6; a remarkable achievement. So, as crushing as it was for Songbird’s fans to see her get beat for the first time it was difficult for anyone to get down over the result after watching these two magnificent fillies charging to the wire, giving every ounce of themselves. What eased the pain a bit of seeing California Chrome appearing to have the race won and then surrendering the lead in the final yards is that racing may have seen the birth of a new superstar in Arrogate.
With Lady Eli, it was hard not to get goosebumps watching her explode down the stretch like her old self, with victory seemingly in hand, only to get caught in the final stride by an 8-1 European invader, despite closing her final quarter in :23 flat. Even after her defeat, the goosebumps continued as this extraordinary filly returned to be unsaddled. She did not need a victory to provide a happy ending.
If anyone felt Tepin had lost a step since returning from England, they certainly had to reassess those feelings after seeing her run one of the best races of her life. Normally a stalker, she was taken out of her game by a torrid early pace that forced her to lay far back in seventh, 10 lengths off the lead. She made a big sweeping move on the turn, only to get fanned eight-wide turning for home, while the hard-knocking Tourist was able to split horses on the inside, saving all the ground. Despite losing so much ground, Tepin came flying down the stretch with a blistering final eighth in :10 4/5, only to fall a half-length short of catching Tourist. Considering her huge ground loss, the freakish early pace, and the final time of 1:31.73, only two one-hundredths of a second off the course record, there are few who believe Tepin was not the best horse on this day.
So, as agonizing as these finishes were, there is no one who can deny that the greatness of all three fillies was actually enhanced by their defeats.
And finally, we come to Found, a filly no doubt made of sinew and steel who lost more than she won, but never took a day off, no matter who she was running against; a filly who finished in the money in 19 of her 20 races, with 16 of her starts coming in group I races against the best of Europe and America.
This is a filly who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf, having run in the Prix de l’Arc Triomphe and Champion Stakes; all three races coming in a 27-day period after a hard campaign. This year, after competing in seven group races, five of them group I’s and six against the boys, Found won the Arc de Triomphe, finished a gallant second to Europe’s top horse Almanzor in the Champion Stakes, and once again came to America for the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
This time, however, she stumbled at the start and dropped back to 11th, 13 lengths off the moderately slow pace set by her stablemate, Highland Reel, winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and second in the Arc. By the time she got rolling, Highland Reel was long gone. But Found kept coming, picking off horses, eventually finishing third behind Highland Reel and Flintshire. It was her 20th in-the-money finish in 21 starts; 17 of them in group I stakes and 14 against males.
So, as a whole, this year’s Breeders’ Cup was one of the most exciting, drawing one of the greatest assemblages of top-class males and females from the United States and Europe in the event’s 32-year-history.
But as memorable and epic as the victories of Arrogate and Beholder were, we will in many ways remember the 2016 Breeders’ Cup for the tough defeats of California Chrome, Songbird, Tepin, and Lady Eli, and another big effort from Found. But most of all, after the initial feelings wear off, we will remember those defeats over the course of time and how they showed us that greatness and defeat are not conflicting words. They were not conflicting for Zenyatta or Smarty Jones or Seattle Slew in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a race that, like Zenyatta in the Classic, actually confirmed and in many ways defined his greatness.
When I think of this year’s Breeders’ Cup I will think of Arrogate and Beholder and some of the other winners, but I will also think of these words from an old saying: “For a gallant spirit there can never be defeat.”