Hey, Zenyatta, Have a Cigar!

By Jack Shinar

Striking parallels exist in the current debate between supporters of Blame and Zenyatta over Horse of the Year and the decision confronting voters in 1996 with Cigar.

Like Zenyatta, Cigar was assaulting the hallowed mark for consecutive victories held by Citation. And like the big mare, Cigar was beloved by fans. He liked people and loved the attention he received and the click of the cameras. He was a media sensation, attracting thousands of new fans who had never cared about racing, as well as the admiration of those who did. The grandstands were packed and Cigar's every race was eagerly anticipated on the national stage.

He would eventually match Citation's record in 1996, although a couple of his races weren't what people considered worthy tests. Doesn't that sound familiar?.

With a chance to surpass Citation, he was entered in the Pacific Classic. He was expected to easily win as the post-time favorite at 1-10 odds against a short field of five seemingly overmatched opponents. Instead, one of them, Dare and Go, dispatched him rather handily that day at Del Mar (pre-poly so it counted) to end the streak.

Cigar ran twice more before the Breeders' Cup Classic, beating a so-so field in the Woodward and dropping a head's decision to Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Though his aura of invincibility was gone, he was odds-on in the Classic, held that year at Woodbine. He fell farther back than usual in the early stages but charged five wide around the far turn. He mounted a final valiant charge that came up a neck short behind Alphabet Soup, who won by a nose over Louis Quatorze.

Cigar's year ended with a pair of important victories early in the season, the Donn Handicap and the Dubai World Cup (which as a foreign race, should probably have not been considered). But after winning the non-graded Mass 'Cap and something called the "Citation Challenge" at Arlington Park to tie the mark in July, he ended his career with losses in three of four starts.

There were some other strong contenders for Horse of the Year, led by Alphabet Soup. The California gray had captured the San Pasqual, Pat O'Brien, San Antonio and Goodwood handicaps, though he was controversially disqualified from his Goodwood win and placed third. And he was the best horse in the Classic.

But voters didn't blink, awarding Cigar Horse of the Year honors for the second year in a row.

Fifteen years later, Zenyatta may not merit the same kind of respect from the turf writers. Though she won 19 races in a row in undefeated style and left Cigar and Citation well behind, her 13 grade I victories -- including five this year going into the Classic -- are not considered worthy enough by many. 

One blogger on this website says the decision is easy: Blame beat Zenyatta in their only meeting; he's horse of the year. A second blogger here says it's a question of mind or heart. If you go with your mind, you take Blame. If it is from the heart, you side with Zenyatta.

I say baloney to both of them.

Zenyatta is the most influential Thoroughbred in American racing since at least Cigar. Taking into consideration all that she has meant to the sport, which has never been in more dire circumstances than at this time, isn't being emotional. It's doing our job. To simply parse PPs and award this honor to Blame because he won the Classic by a few inches isn't being objective. It's wearing blinders.

Anyone can see that Zenyatta was the best horse in the Classic and she was unfortunate not to hit the wire first. Blasted by a kick-back that she was unaccustomed to over those plastic tracks in California, she fell far, far back -- 15 lengths, 20 lengths -- and was still showing nothing as jockey Mike Smith began to ask her on the backstretch. On the far turn, though, she dug in. Against this top-quality field on a cuppy racetrack she clearly wasn't handling, Zenyatta fought through traffic and made up about a football field while overcoming the dirt in her face, a pronounced track speed bias, and slow fractions. She missed by a short head.

In 35 years of following racing, it ranks as one of the two or three grittiest efforts in a major event that I have witnessed.

Blame won and he's a tremendous horse. But everything went right for him on his home track that day. The Classic victory, and his light record coming into the race, do not merit Horse of the Year in the face of Zenyatta's accomplishments.

It should also be noted that in 15 of 26 renewals of the Classic, HOY voters passed over the winner of this supposed championship event for another horse they felt was more deserving.

Racing fans have clearly expressed their sentiment for Zenyatta. The polls I've seen all run at least 3-1 in her favor. The racing industry, deep down, knows she deserves the award as well and will look foolish in the eyes of the public if they don't honor her this time. Voters will feel the pressure to go with Blame and Claiborne Farm. But when the announcement is made at the Eclipse Awards in January, let's hope they did the right thing.

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