Wandering around Churchill Downs last week, anticipating a big race, I thought about the last time I was there: last November, for the Breeders’ Cup. That was, of course, the Zenyatta Breeders’ Cup: no matter what else happened that weekend, it was all about her, all about the Classic. She was the story on the backstretch in the days leading up to the race, she engendered national buzz, she was trying to cap a perfect career.
It was different this time. While much of the focus was on Uncle Mo and the “will he or won’t he” story, attention scattered across the Churchill backside. There was Mucho Macho Man and the story of his female trainer with the heart transplant; Pants on Fire and the female jockey; Nick Zito with yet another promising Derby starter. Oh, yeah, and there was Derby Kitten, too (well, for me, anyway). The star of the show had yet to be determined.
The Derby, after all, is really about a beginning. The Classic last November was about an ending. This race, the Derby, is about creating a legacy; the Classic was about sealing one.
Tension and nervous energy infused the crowd at Churchill last fall. We knew how much was at stake, knew what a win for Zenyatta would mean; knew, too, what a loss would mean. Excitement battled with uneasiness, and even a little sadness. Win or lose, Zenyatta wouldn’t race again.
The Breeders’ Cup was about an ending, and the Derby is about a beginning: some horse was about to take its place in racing history, to begin Triple Crown dreams that might last for only two weeks, or for a lifetime. The Derby is, in a sense, all about looking forward.
Zenyatta’s loss last November deflated Churchill Downs. As writers began to file stories, the mood was sober, wistful, nearly elegiac. Last Saturday, ebullience replaced soberness as the story simply came together: the trainer who’d lost his “top” horse less than a week before the Derby had made it to the winner’s circle, with a jockey whose mount had dropped out the previous day. For Graham Motion and John Velazquez, for their fans and for anyone with a love for narrative, this year’s Kentucky Derby offered satisfaction.
It might have felt a little anti-climactic, but perhaps only in comparison to the Classic, and maybe it’s not a fair comparison. That Classic was epic, the culmination of years of anticipation, starring a once-in-a-lifetime horse. We won’t see its likes again any time soon.
But nor do we need to. This year’s Derby offered all we could really hope for: likeable winners, juicy prices, and plenty of stories to tell. And while it might lack the drama of that other race last November, it also offers something that the Classic couldn’t: the chance to see these horses again.
On to Baltimore…