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.
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 one race, 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 she 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 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 among 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 industry 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.
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Click Photo to Watch Zenyatta Video
With Zenyatta’s final race scheduled for the Breeder’s Cup Classic, it is hard to find any new words to say about this amazing champion.
I’ve written several articles about Zenyatta at this point.
They mark out her many endeavors and outstanding achievements in her career.
But, the bottom line remains the same – I think she’s absolutely perfect.
Rather than write another piece about the greatness of Zenyatta, I wanted to show her in motion. The beauty of watching her move tells her story better than any words I can find.
I believe she is the best racehorse that I will witness in my lifetime.
Zenyatta has traveled beyond my wildest dreams of a racehorse. She dances. Paints for charity. Celebrates her birthday (with cake). Drinks Guinness. And, Zenyatta proved she could beat the boys in the richest race in North America in 2009 – The Breeder’s Cup Classic.
Zenyatta remains perfect with a 19-0 racing record as she heads into her last start. She has amassed thirteen Grade I victories. And, she has surpassed the 18-0 undefeated record of Eclipse, the namesake to the Horse of the Year award.
I wholeheartedly believe Zenyatta deserves the “Horse of the Year” award whether or not she wins the Breeder’s Cup Classic. And, if they invent a “Horse of a Lifetime” award, my vote goes to Zenyatta as well.
In celebration of her career as she heads into the Breeder’s Cup Classic, I am posting a video montage of Zenyatta’s previous Breeder’s Cup victories, along with footage of her dance routines and photos. Click here to view the Zenyatta tribute for the Breeder’s Cup.
I hope you enjoy the Zenyatta show.
I believe it is the greatest show on earth.
Thank you for the show, Zenyatta.
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