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.