By Jennifer Wirth, of The Saturday Post
The old rule of etiquette used to be that people shouldn’t bring up politics or religion in casual social settings. It is the quickest way to anger friends, start rivalries and ignite a big ol’ brawl in any circle. I agree perfectly with this rule of etiquette, but I’d like to add one more topic to the rule: The “Horse of the Year” Award.
Last Saturday, in a not-so-casual setting, Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm shot those fighting words into the cold Kentucky air during a press conference after Blame had just defeated Zenyatta in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. As Zenyatta was quietly escorted back to her stable, Hancock was asked who should win the highly-coveted “Horse of the Year” award. He proclaimed with certainty, “Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about half an hour ago and Blame won it.”
Let the rodeo begin.
Two men can look at the same woman. One may find her beautiful, while the other finds her to be average. And, two voters can look at the same horse. One may see a decent horse, while the other person is marveling over their “Horse of the Year.” In my view, Hancock was doing just that. He had just watched Blame hold his nose in front of a bulleting monster mare and saw his “Horse of the Year.” Undoubtedly, Blame deserves praise, especially by his ownership, but winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic doesn’t necessarily clinch the “Horse of the Year” award.
How can a horse win the Classic and lose “Horse of the Year?” I believe Zenyatta would be happy to field this question for the audience. After two consecutive victories in major Breeder’s Cup outings, she received a few flowers, a couple new purses and a few bargaining chips at the voting booth. However, in the final stretch, she didn’t go home as “Horse of the Year” in 2008 or 2009.
The problem lies in the criterion that determines the Horse of the Year. It is completely subjective, and at times, downright snobby. Rifle through the “Horse of the Year” articles in the past few days and you’ll find a bundle of opinions.
The horse should win on a dirt track against male horses in Grade I races in a field of proven heavyweights.
It is also frowned upon if the races are solely in California. If a horse happens to train in California, it must be shipped all across the country to prove it is not solely a “synthetic” horse.
There is no reciprocity in the “East Coast vs. West Coast” arrangement. East Coast horses do not need to ship to California. It is presumed that they stand on golden hooves with dirt made of diamonds.
A male horse with a decent record of Grade I victories can overshadow any female horse in the field. If you’re a female, you better be able to beat the boys in every single outing against them as well as win all other Grade I outings. If you lose simply once, you don’t stand a chance at Horse of the Year. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been undefeated throughout your entire career.
Finally, the female races are simply cupcake parties and bake sales. Sure, they are Grade I races, but they don’t really count for “Horse of the Year.” Since the inception of the Eclipse “Horse of the Year” award in 1971, one single female has won it through campaigning solely in female races – Azeri. Ruffian did not win the award. Neither did Rags to Riches when she beat Curlin in the stretch run of the Belmont Stakes in 2007. A victory in the Kentucky Derby won’t clinch the “Horse of the Year” award for a female either – Winning Colors and Genuine Risk already tried that path.
Somehow, Azeri slipped through a loophole in 2002 and won “Horse of the Year” through filly and mare-restricted races.
Similar to Zenyatta, Azeri built her “Horse of the Year” campaign through winning the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Milady, Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (formerly known as the Breeders’ Cup Distaff). All in all, Azeri had five Grade I wins, three Grade II victories and one successful allowance race when she was voted “Horse of the Year” in 2002.
In contrast, Zenyatta tried to take the “Azeri Route” to “Horse of the Year” in 2008. She won the El Encino, Apple Blossom, Milady, Vanity, Clement Hirsch, Lady’s Secret and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic that season. At the end of the year, Zenyatta had three Grade II victories and four Grade I wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic.
Yet, Zenyatta did not win “Horse of the Year” in 2008. Her critics insisted that she raced against “nobodies” and never ran against the boys. “Cupcake Parties” don’t count.
Zenyatta put a new twist on her campaign for “Horse of the Year” in 2009. While maintaining a perfect record, Zenyatta clinched one Grade II victory and won four Grade I races in her new campaign. Among those victories, Zenyatta stunned the racing world through becoming the first female to beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In doing so, she put away the 2009 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winners in the same field.
Yet, Zenyatta did not win “Horse of the Year” in 2009. Her critics insisted that campaigned solely on synthetic track, failed to ship to the East Coast and that a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was really just a great “moment” in her career.
Zenyatta decided to answer all remaining criticisms in 2010. While maintaining a perfect record, Zenyatta won five Grade I races. She shipped to the Apple Blossom and won by daylight on dirt. Zenyatta pulled a “three-peat” in the Clement Hirsch, Vanity and Lady’s Secret. She became the top-earning female racehorse of all time while capturing the female record for the most Grade I victories. She reeled in the record for the most consecutive Grade I wins. And then, she shipped to Kentucky to race the boys on dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Yet, Zenyatta did not win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In her final majestic flight toward Blame, she lost by a head. However, in her defeat, Zenyatta actually did beat a few more boys in the career. She finished in front of ten top-notch male contenders, including the Preakness winner and Haynesfield, the horse that had previously beaten Blame this season.
And then, the rules changed on Zenyatta.
As luck would have it, some members of the racing industry started to proclaim that the “Horse of the Year” award is an honor reserved for the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This was big news. Since the inception of the race, the “Horse of the Year” award has been denied to 58% of the Breeder’s Cup Classic winners. But now, it was a new requirement.
You must be kidding me.
Zenyatta has won more Grade I victories than Blame this year. And, she has met all the demands of her critics. She shipped from California to race on dirt against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. She was the oldest horse in the field and only female in the race. Zenyatta made this journey with a perfect record of 19-0. She was the sole undefeated horse in the field.
Zenyatta had everything to lose in a field of rivals that stood only to benefit their own career by being “the one” to defeat the great mare.
And, she still showed up.
In fact, she rose to the challenge.
Zenyatta filled the stands and captivated the media. She danced in the paddock, pranced in the post-parade and shot like a bullet down the cold dirt track against her male counterparts in a breathtaking attempt to maintain her perfect record.
The news of her defeat hit a national audience. Hard. The viewers of that race went beyond the regular crowd. Zenyatta brought Oprah into the racing world. She was the first racehorse to ever be profiled on 60 Minutes. And, Zenyatta introduced the fashion industry to the sport in the society pages of W fashion magazine. She marketed racing to non-enthusiasts. It was brilliant, beautiful and, most importantly, successful.
The racing world has a new group of fans because of Zenyatta. And, the treatment of Zenyatta will define our industry to non-traditional fans in the racing world.
Treat her like a Queen.
Treat her like perfection.
She’s not your average horse.
Zenyatta is Horse of the Year.