For Zenyatta, Horse of the Year is Beside the Point

By Frank Vespe,

In the end, it seemed to me that the tale would be told in details: the red-rimmed eyes of a nearby horseman, the hundred-yard stare of a disappointed fan, the 72,000 voices suddenly gone silent.

The tale, of course, was the oldest racing tale of all, that of the dream dashed, the mountain unsummitted, the heart broken.

On Saturday, in the gloaming at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta’s last, frantic charge had, for the first time in a glittering career, fallen short.  Blame, a worthy competitor nailing down his third Grade 1 race of the season, parlayed the effort of his life and what jockey Garrett Gomez called a “perfect trip” into victory in the biggest race of the year.  Zenyatta, bidding for a 20th consecutive triumph, could not overcome her troubles, a yawning deficit that had to top 20 lengths in the early stages and minor traffic troubles late that left her stuck behind horses until the 3/16ths pole.  The difference between the pair was a diminishing head, a handful of inches.

The debate has already begun over whether Blame’s victory will, or should, also secure him Horse of the Year honors.  Yet, while this was a debate that seemed to matter a year ago, it, like the details I thought told the story, fades into irrelevance with just a touch of perspective.

Perhaps Blame will receive the majority vote of turf writers, and perhaps that’s fair.  While one can make a legitimate case that the best horse in Saturday’s Classic was not the one standing in the winner’s circle at the end, the geometry of racetracks is unforgiving; being first a second before or a second after the wire is no different from decisive defeat.  Zenyatta partisans can say, correctly, that she’d have gone by in another jump or two, but the race is not run at 10 furlongs plus a couple of jumps.  And after all the times Zenyatta and Mike Smith cut it this close, well, those are the breaks of the game.  Blame is a wonderful colt who delivered his best performance on the sport’s biggest stage; he won the race.

Yet the truth is that, while Zenyatta, for the first time, lost a horse race, in a defeat as honorable as it was narrow, she gained much more: an undisputed place in the pantheon of racing’s greats.  Zenyatta will live on the short list of the greatest American fillies and mares, perhaps at the very top, and few are left to dispute that.  While before the race, some clung to the notion that she could not compete with the top colts at the classic distance on real, honest-to-goodness dirt, she answered the critics and dismissed the doubters with her stirring finish.  Horses some deemed too much for her — Quality Road, Haynesfield, Lookin at Lucky, Fly Down — were left far behind.  With the defeat, she, like every other top-level American horse before her, will not finish undefeated.  But in defeat, we saw not only her flaws but also her indomitable will, the heart that will make her, for the third consecutive year, a champion.

What’s more, we learned, conclusively, that Zenyatta is the most important horse to race in this country in at least a decade, and perhaps in three decades.  For a sport struggling for relevance, unable to generate public interest outside of the Triple Crown, Zenyatta became a genuine crossover star.  Sixty Minutes examined her in a segment.  Sports Illustrated devoted a feature to her.  Oprah named her to her “Power List” of ” 20 women (and one amazing horse) who blew us away this year.”

She’s the first horse in memory with the ability to move the meter on public interest in the game, and to do so without competing in any Triple Crown race.  Ratings for this year’s Classic — following the blizzard of publicity attending the big mare — were nearly triple those of 2009.  Wagering on Saturday’s races was up 23 percent from the prior year (versus Friday’s increase of eight percent).  A horse who can convince an additional two million households to tune into racing — and wager — is a star, indeed. And while many of those watching no doubt were disappointed in the outcome, they saw a race for the ages, and only those utterly immune to racing walked away unmoved by the competition.

In a way, I was right when I thought that the story was told by its details.  I just picked the wrong details.  The Zenyatta story has less to do with spilled tears on Saturday, and more to do with winning rider Garrett Gomez’s salute to the great mare post-race.  It has less to do with the silence that descended upon Churchill in the race’s aftermath and more to do with the deafening wall of sound that willed her to the line.  It has, finally, less to do with one horse beating another by a head and more to do with two horses locked in a battle which elevates both.

The Horse of the Year debate will, no doubt, engender acrimony and ill will.  Lobbying has already begun.

But in the wake of Saturday’s race, trainer Bob Baffert — a man who’s trained more than a few good horses — said that he’d yelled himself hoarse cheering for Zenyatta once he’d realized his own horse, Lookin At Lucky, would not win.

And maybe that’s really the tale that was told on Saturday: that of the giant mare with the engaging personality and the just-in-time style who turns hard-bitten racing lifers into screaming fanboys. The gorgeous, talented, all-heart racehorse who introduced the magic of racing to many who previously had no interest.  The truly great racehorse who was ennobled as much by defeat as by victory.

And that’s a tale that, like Zenyatta’s legacy, is affected not at all by a few votes, or a few inches, one way or the other.

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