The Zenyatta Effect

Horse racing let us down a lot last weekend.  We saw a disgraceful and indefensible jockey fight in the winner’s circle; a perplexing series of events that led to Life At Ten jogging around the track at Churchill Downs under the lights; a fatal injury to Rough Sailing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

And 6:47 on Saturday night, we thought that perhaps the weekend would come to an end in thudding disappointment: in her first run down the Churchill stretch, Zenyatta didn’t look good. Her gait looked off, she didn’t seem comfortable, and she was so far back – so far back. We didn’t want to over-react, but nervous chatter buzzed as we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn’t as bad as it looked.

And by the time she came down that historic stretch for the second time, we dared to let ourselves hope. We saw her coming, we saw her coming, she was doing what she always did…except that this time, she didn’t. A few agonizing inches prevented the perfect outcome for which we had dared to hope.

As we dashed back inside to file stories that editors required of us, the weight of the loss was on us. I saw moist eyes among people who are supposed to cover the sport objectively; I heard turf writers whom I would have sworn didn’t have a sentimental racing bone in their bodies say in bewilderment, “I can’t believe how bad I feel.”

But the minutes ticked by, and we wrote, and we talked…and the enormity of what we saw gradually dawned on us. She did it: she silenced those critics who said that she was a synthetic specialist.  That she’d never beaten anyone of consequence. That she and that running style benefitted from all of those short fields.

She ran on a surface she didn’t like and she took dirt in her face. She faced 10 11 foes, among them the winners of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Woodward, the Met Mile, the Preakness and the Haskell. And she beat all of them except one, and he got her by less than a head.

Were we disappointed?  Oh, yeah, we were disappointed. But somehow, in disappointment, there was a curious satisfaction. We saw something thrilling and extraordinary and determined and courageous. We saw everything that we love about horse racing:  two of the country’s best horses, running their eyeballs out, a nose separating them.

Horse racing let us down a lot last weekend. Correction: the humans in horse racing let us down a lot last weekend. The horses did what they always do: thrill us, make us cheer, make us cry, humble us with their grace and heart and valor. Especially one, the likes of which we will never see again.

My photo album of Zenyatta photos from this weekend is here.

22 thoughts on “The Zenyatta Effect

  1. Well said Teresa. After the Life at Ten debacle it was easy to have that “here we go again” feeling going into Saturday.

    Fortunately, Zenyatta made us forget all of the negatives – even if for only just over two minutes – and remember what makes the sport so great.

    Racing was relevant for the wrong reasons on Friday, but for all of the right reasons on Saturday. People who know nothing about the sport were calling me right after the race to talk about it with the same level of excitement after witnessing a game winning catch in the super bowl.

    Even in defeat, Zenyatta won a much larger victory for all of us, who, for just over two minutes, were part of history.

  2. Well said. Even brought a tear to my eyes. I was there. You just wrote exactly what I have been thinking since the race ended. I am seeing posts and comments everywhere with people fighting over who is the best and who deserves HOY and I bet none have taken the time to think what you just wrote above. We should relish in the fact that we saw something amazing this weekend. Yeah, if she’d have won, it would have been better but who cares. I have to say both of the Breeders Cup Classics she ran are my top two races for her. Yeah, she lost one but its what she accomplished during both that make them stand out.

    Blame was amazing too. Just look how he dug in there at the end. He may be overshadowed by the news of Zenyatta’s loss but he isn’t the bad guy. Heck, I wish they wouldn’t have retired him so we could see him run again next year. He and Z proved this weekend that they are the best horses in the country. I can’t hold any negative thoughts over what happened in the Classic.

    Your correct in saying the humans of horse racing have let us down.

  3. Right on!

    When people ask me why I like horse racing so much, one of the things I tell them is that a thoroughbred is such a competitive athlete. I find it so thrilling to watch them compete-especially when you get a great one like Z, who competes every time.

  4. Nice piece…Zenyatta is very particular about things…lights, a foreign substance smacking her in the face…she seemed to balk at the elements…having watched her from day one, it was apparent to me that the first time down the stretch, she was hesitant, more than normal for her…hauling her big frame has never been easy for mighty Z…she has that funky hind end reminiscent of a boxer (dog), so on Saturday night it seemed like doom…Zenyatta was truly not comfortable, but when Mike.asked her to compete…she did…as the the champion she truely is.

  5. Down the stretch the first time Zenyatta did not like the dirt in her face and she seemed to be captivated by the lights and the crowd and the noise. Would she have handled the situation better if she had had more experiences at other tracks? To me that is a very important question.

  6. Pingback: With Stunning Rally, Zenyatta Wins Over Critics - NYTimes.com

  7. Teresa, your thoughts mirror my own. First a crushing bitter sadness, and then the magnificent achievement Zenyatta accomplished in this race.
    Fastest horse in the race – Zenyatta.
    The horse with the greatest performance – Zenyatta.
    Out accelerated every horse in the field – Zenyatta.

    Zenyatta did not win the finish, she simply won the entire event. Long after the winner fades from memory, her achievement Saturday will remain etched on the minds, hearts, and lips of all who watched this jaw-dropping stretch run.

  8. Very well-expressed, Teresa. I was in the grandstand, mid-stretch, and saw her boxed in, then swing out and explode. Even if she missed by inches, she still demonstrated her signal style and awesome stride. I also felt an enormous relief when my morbid fear that she would be injured was allayed.

  9. She came back covered with mud from a track watered against a terminal drought past a crowd still calling her name. With mud from an onslaught run dead last to a photo finish past a younger, mighty field, placing by a nose — her ears relaxed, and the winner’s flattened. Coming in she carried her jockey with her head up, his own bent low. Some wondered if she wondered why they bypassed the ‘Winner’s Circle, but she had run her race as she ran the 19 unbeaten ones before — that was the wonder — breaking slow, seizing the field, switching gears, stretching down to the wire, the stylish iron maiden. She’ll be retired now in a tempered glory, tarnished solely by this race, to become a breeding mare. With mud from that trip, as always coming from behind, she rolled down a drought in the sport over which she has reigned, building something from her heart, catching the breath of people who can’t imagine all she means, except that they find themselves grateful in her presence. Grateful she was trained slowly at her own pace for the long run, ridden attentively and not to a hurried attack, encouraged in finding her way. There is gratitude for her owners, prizing her tempo as much as they did the musical artists they nurtured earlier, keeping her sound and safe into her sixth year. For the record, may statistics register with the public just how fast she had to drive to cover ground from the gate to the wire where the winning horse bobbed his nose and hers passed it. Plain heart is in these creatures. And when they are surrounded by people who prize that, there is more gratitude.’

  10. I agree with Terry; Zenyatta won the entire event. She showed that she was the best horse in the race, and one of the very best of all time.

  11. Perfection Lost But Greatness Gained
    Today we lost that sports moment in time we all cherish. That thing in sports we all crave for. Something to always remember. Something unforgettable. That thing you talk about as sports fans with friends and other fans that says we will always remember that, and wasn’t that great. Then the comparisons start about who was the best of all time, or what was the greatest moment. Today America had a chance to have that moment. Everything all week led up to that moment. America got a chance to catch on late with the help of magazines and Television. It was a story made from Hollywood almost Heaven sent in a time of need. A feel good story in a year of uncertain economy turmoil and tabloid gossip. The cheers, the fan fare, the dancing was all there right up to the starting gate. But when the gate opened our hearts hit our stomach’s. As the first half of the race was completed we all knew it was going to have to be a real miracle for our hearts not to be broken. Yes, this was her style but not this far back and not on this track and up against this field. You could feel the race being lost coming around the turn for home. No where to go and valuable time lost. Then a small opening to the outside that will lose more time but it’s the only chance we have. She breaks free and can run, but looking at the field in front of her there is no way no chance against the best horses out there. But then you see that stride. That familiar move we have all seen before that has greatness written all over it. One by One they all fall behind like a train just went by them. Our hearts lift out of our stomach’s because our heads say to us we have saw this before. That phenomenal stretch drive like the other horses are standing still. Unbelievable can this be the same horse that was at least 20 lengths back. The same horse that was tied up starting around the turn. One horse left but time is running short each stride a little closer. She has caught the other horse and needs just one more stride. But this time the great Zenyatta stride is too late. She passes the other horse but the finish line photo finish shows she lost by a nose. She fought the travel, the media frenzy, the dirt track, the bad start, the 20 lengths down and still only lost by a nose. The other horse had the perfect race. No problems just had to hold on and not get tracked down. One lost stride for perfection. The other horse’s owner says we had it all the way. But the film shows different. It was just a matter of time that came a stride to late. Anything can happen in horse racing that’s what made this 19-0 run so remarkable. Any given day like today to many odds are against you. While the other side had everything go completely perfect. What we learned today is not about our hearts being broken but about the heart of a Champion we grew to love. Who had no chance at all and just about pulled it off. Her critics who said she couldn’t run on dirt saw that she did the same thing she always had done. Even with the worst of odds this time. Again one lost stride for perfection. This race will never be about how Blame won. It will always be about how Zenyatta lost. When your perfect in sports everybody remembers and never forgets. Who remembers the New England Patriots win streak because they ended up losing it in the Super Bowl a few years ago. But they all remember the 1972 Miami Dolphins. If Zenyatta would have won I can only imagine how the media frenzy would have been. You could feel the let down from Churchill downs, the TV announcers, across America at that moment in time. The winners circle seemed like a mortuary and Gomez the jockey almost apologetic. We all knew who was the best horse out there that day. Mike Smith the jockey can replay it over and over again. If we just would have done this or that because he knew already what we all know now. She is the best thing to come along in horse racing for a long time and probably the greatest filly who ever lived and he wanted her to have this sports moment so no one would ever forget. Hopefully unlike the New England Patriots we wont forget. Tonight Andrew Beyers and Jess Jackson breath a sign of relief her biggest critics. What were they thinking when Zenyatta made her charge? Again one lost stride for perfection. What excuses will they come up with now. It took all odds against her and a perfect race to beat her. Don’t you hate it when someone lucks out and doesn’t have to answer for being wrong. Today in this sports moment we lost perfection but we gained greatness. It’s about what we call in sports of having the heart to overcome impossible odds and not so much about winning but to give it your all and giving it your best. We should all remember this day for Zenyatta never giving up and giving it all she had. Again one lost stride for perfection. But the heart that made her the Greatest Filly of all Time.
    Written by Dominic Campisi 11/6/10

  12. The best horse doesn’t always win, and didn’t on Saturday. That’s horse racing. I think that if she’s not boxed in and not forced to shift around so much at the head of the stretch, she gets it done. But traffic is the bane of the closer, and her running style finally caught up with her. But what a mare! Spotting the field almost half a furlong, and then unleashing a withering charge that, but for a little luck, would have gotten the job done. I don’t care where she finished. What we saw from her was miraculous. She is truly one for the ages.

  13. Not all the humans blew it. Zenyatta’s connections were all class in defeat.

    Teresa, you’re a hockey fan. What’s wrong with a little brawl once in a while?

  14. Wow…thanks, everyone, for all the comments!

    Mainetraduh: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I fixed it. Oops.

    DJLoo: I’m not a fan of hockey fights, either, but I recognize that, for better or worse, they’re a part of the sport I love. In racing? Not so much. And for them to act that way on television is, as I said, indefensible.

    Everyone else: thank you so much for sharing your impressions and thoughts about Saturday night so eloquently. I appreciate your taking the time to do so.

  15. As someone who loves horse racing and who was also there, I was rooting for her to win, but looking for a way to beat her at the window. That is one of the more interesting aspects of the sport among aficionados: trying to find the unseen good-sized payoff. When it was all said and done and when she lost by a precious neck, everyone around me, regardless of their betting interests, wished that she had won with her dramatic charge down the stretch and her courageousness. She was a treat to see, a pleasure to watch, and great for the sport. I know that I will never forget the moment. What a rush – what a thrill. What a lady!

  16. http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/breeders-cup-chat/archive/2010/11/08/horse-of-the-year-is-simple-blame.aspx

    Al Stall Jr. is a class act as a trainer. He had mapped out Blame’s 2010 race schedule last year. Blame was well prepared to run and win in the Classic. Gomez rode him perfectly, and he was still saving something at the end. In case you didn’t notice, Blame galloped out well beyond Zenyatta after the finish line.
    http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing-/videos/watch/32BA2840-2A97-4C04-8DCF-849A8856B3DD
    The connections kept Zenyatta facing weak fields all of 2010. They could have opted to do it differently this year, like they said they would last year but, they didn’t. They had the freshest horse in the Classic field. The other entrants were all pretty much battle-tested, competing against the stiffest competition in the toughest races in the country. The other entrants did it all year. They didn’t duck anyone, did they? Perhaps, had Zenyatta’s connections chosen to do what they said they were going to do last year, she probably wouldn’t have been 19 – 0 going into the Classic but, would have been battle-tested and, might have even won. The less is more approach, wasn’t necessarily more, this time. She performed well but, so too, did Regret, Ta Wee, Shuvee, Ipi Tombe, Azeri, Winning Colors, Azeri, Go For Wand, Chris Evert, Ruffian, Bayakoa and all the other illustrious and distinguished female equines that we worshipped. They both won and lost but, it did not detract from their greatness.

  17. Great posts as always, Teresa.

    To me the moment that best captured the spirit of racing was Goldlikova’s groom, running along the dirt track as she won her 3rd straight on the turf. The groom was beside himself with joy. It was a pure emotion, unscripted and from the heart. Goldlikova is also one for the ages.

  18. Well, what I witnessed last Sat. @ 3:48PST here in Santa Barbara, CA on ESPN was something that My family & I have witnessed w/ our very own eyes, since the 2009 BCClassic… Another Heart-stopping, Thrill-of-a-Lifetime, “Run em down @ the wire, finish”. Yes, the lump in my throat eventually turned into a few tears. I was really surprised that it effected me like that! A grown Man! Crazy!.. But that’s OK. I soon began to reminisce about how this amazing thoroughbred brought my Extended Family closer & closer together. My Boy and I actually met Zenyatta last year w/ Mr. Sherriffs. The sweetest, most gentle horse I’ve ever met and was an absolute Angel to my Boy!

    We missed only this years Apple Blossom in ARK(we watched it on HRTV live), but we’re there for all of her CA races. Remembering Zenyatta in the paddock, (My 4yr-old on my shoulders yelling “Go Mike Smith!!” and Smith acknowledging him every time!)the post parade and then “Rollin’ them down in the stretch” & the deafening roar of the crowd(Like it was when I saw Affirmed, Spectacular Bid & John Henry in the ’70’s here), was an event that will live in our hearts FOVEVER. My Family’s 1st encounter w/ Z was on Nov.7th, 2009 @ Santa Anita in the BCC. My step-son asked me nervously @ the 1/2 pole “When is she going to start running?”…and I said “About rite… NOW!” and boom, it was on! He jumped in my arms screaming when Z won!!.. and so did my Wife!! From the Santa Margrarita this past March to last months Lady’s Secret, we were there to support Z. The look of joy and sheer happiness on my Family’s face was PRICELESS when she won!

    I’m not sure if Zenyatta even thinks that she lost this past Sat? Maybe so maybe not? Possibly, when her groom, Mario Espinosa, suddenly walked her back to the barn to cool down soon after Mike Smith dismounted, instead of the normal winners cicle ritual…

    In my eyes, it was very similar to Seattle Slew’s ’78 JCGCup defeat to Exceller. ‘Slew showed the “World” that late, rainy afternoon what he was made of that day… Zenyatta displayed that SAME, God-Given, Heart of a Champion, like no other Filly or Mare, against the best Male dirt horses on the Planet, that I’ve ever witnessed. Did Smith cost her the race? He’ll be the fall guy to many and he’s man enough to take it..He is a Man’s MAN, but we all know that he did EVERYTHING humanly possible to shoot the best, ground-saving gap he could and was trying to keep her path straight the last 400 yds, as she was gaining on Blame w/ EVERY stride…. I know he ran over a 10 thousand times in his head, the possible scenerios he was to face last Sat. in the days before the race. My heart goes out to Mike. He shouldn’t have to shoulder that defeat. All we can do is support him. No one complained the last 16 races he was on her. There was NO ONE in the World that wanted it more that him. Trust me on that one.

    Zenyatta has lost once in her 20 starts by a 1/2 head to a really, really nice 4yr-old, Blame, on his home track. That’s even hard for me to even say…Blame lost to a decent horse, Haynesfield, by about 4 lenghths in last months JCGCup, which was Haynesfield home track. Start doing the math…I think Curlin lost the ’08 BBC by more than a nose & he still won HOY..

    Let the debate begin. Colt vs. Mare, East Coast vs. West Coast, Dirt vs. Synthetic. Sorry Claiborne Farms & Mr. Hancock. You’all know where my vote would go…& THANK YOU so much Mr. & Mrs. Jerry & Ann Moss for bringing Her back for all of us to enjoy, John Sherriffs masterful training job(both in ’09 & ’10) & Steve Willard’s exercise riding & for being so giving and sharing your “Gift from Heaven'” called Zenyatta and bringing in hundreds & hundreds of thousands of fans, young and old, back to the “Sport of Kings”.

    Zenyatta got My Family into it!!

    -Anthony

  19. Wonderful piece, Teresa, and some lovely comments, too. Zenyatta’s race record might not be perfect now, but, to paraphrase the saying, she was bloodied by this loss, yes, but she remains unbowed. She is, to me, quite simply, the perfect racehorse. She’s everything you want to see in a horse and she gives everything we want to see in a race. Pure heart, pure courage, pure joy.

    I heartily agree with those who say she should be Horse of the Year this year, but that’s no more a sure thing than her performance in this Breeders’ Cup Classic was. Either way, the BCC win and/or HOY honors are not the be-all, end-all for a racehorse in my book. What I do know is that she has done everything required, and more, for entry into the Hall of Fame one day with all of this country’s great champions of the past 300 years. The specific race victories or HOY honor is not a pre-requisite for entry there, but unmitigated greatness is, and she has shown that repeatedly, in spades. I, for one, plan to be there when they open those doors to American racing history and show her to her rightful place there.

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