This Breeder’s Cup season, the racing world will turn its focus toward the victories of the equine athletes in the series of prestigious races. A stunning victory showcases the glory of a race horse and can serve as the catalyst to transform a good horse into a great one. Victory is how this sport counts its champions, and, for those who go defeated, they typically stand in the shadows of the winner’s circle as the victor carries the moment.
Yet, at the close of the Breeders’ Cup last year, victory was simply more than the domain of the winner in the Classic. A certain kind of “victory” was also bestowed upon Zenyatta, standing in the cold night, as a freshly defeated mare transforming her heartbreaking loss into a moment of glory. And so, as this Breeders’ Cup season begins, I marvel over the Zenyatta’s quest for victory and wonder if winning is more than standing in the winner’s circle.
Perhaps, there is a little victory that occurs in the smaller moments in racing. The victories don’t count for career records or fancy trophies, but they are possibly part of what makes a champion. And, when I think of many champion racehorses, most of them have experienced both victory and defeat on their road to immortality.
In the case of Zenyatta, it seems that the big mare earned a few unsung victories during last year’s Classic despite her official defeat in the race itself.
It seems that there is a small victory through striking awe in the crowd before the gates ever open in a race. In the minutes leading up to the last Classic, Zenyatta held court in the post-parade like no other contender. The mare looked like a true prize fighter, daring anyone to challenge her on that oval. In that moment, it was her show, and, for those who came to see it, it seemed that defeat was simply out of the question.
And then, there appears to be a glimmer of victory in how a race is run before the wire is crossed. When Zenyatta set flight under the waning autumn sky in the Classic, her dazzling charge in the dusk epitomized something otherworldly. As she rushed past in blur, the sheer speed of her closing kick set in for the first time as I stood in the crowd.
In the end, whether she made it to the wire first or not, there was a small victory present. The mare had captured the victory of sending the crowd soaring at the sight of her final charge. Spectators began to murmur, “She’s going to win it!” in the last dizzying seconds of the Classic. The voices went from whispers to shouts in synchronicity with her movement. And, in that moment, it seems the crowd was racing along with the great mare.
And finally, it seems there was a victory present in the least likely moment – The moment the mare lost the race. Zenyatta, mired with fresh markings of defeat, faced the crowd and stood proudly for an ovation. And, as the crowd rose to pay homage to the great mare, tears streamed down the faces of many people as they stood to pay her a final tribute. Whatever sentiment those tears held, the glory of that mare was simply not in dispute. She held the victory of honor in defeat.
Yes, there and then, a perfect juxtaposition of victory and defeat occurred in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Two champions were on display – one in the winner’s circle and the other receiving a standing ovation in defeat. And, in her defeat, Zenyatta won the prize that had repeatedly eluded the mare in perfection – Horse of the Year.
Retrospectively, it appears there may be more than one winner in last year’s Classic. The true winner, Blame, who conquered the perfect mare in the Classic. And the other winner, Zenyatta, the great mare who was crowned Horse of the Year only after she conquered defeat.