Man o' War lost one in 21 races to a horse named Upset. Zenyatta loses one in 20 to a horse called Blame - how's that for irony?! Last Saturday I saw the greatest race I have ever witnessed. It doesn't always happen that the best horses in the race are able to be on the top of their game on that same day to duke it out to the wire, but Blame and Zenyatta were clearly superior to the rest of the field. Though the vast majority of the 72,739 folks at Churchill Downs and millions watching on ABC or online wanted Big Z to pull it out, she showed uber class by putting in her patented, Silky-Sullivan type, furious rally through the stretch after getting dirt flung up her nostrils for seven furlongs of the ten furlong race. At one point, I was even afraid Mike Smith may have to pull a "Big Brown" she was being so far distanced from the main pack.
The pace was legitimate and most horses had a fairly clean trip -- the fact that Big Z comes from so far back leads to the risk that she would either have to go extremely wide (as Mike Smith typically guides her) or have to temporarily check while waiting for position into the far turn, which happened in the Classic. While this could or could not have been the difference in this race result (Blame galloped out strongly after the wire, so we can't assume Zen would have passed him with a perfect trip), what it proved to me is how superior Zenyatta has been during her previous 19 race unbeaten streak and the heart she showed in pushing Blame to his limit. And I certainly don't "blame" Mike Smith in any way for his ride (although he stated in tears that he left her "too much to do"), as the trip could have certainly been worse than it was.
Comparing her feat to other notable streaks in recent memory, Cigar had a stalking style, which gave him the perfect trip for Jerry Bailey to dictate pace and move when he needed to stay near the rail and out of trouble. His defeat by Dare and Go was the result of a baiting pace scenario by Siphon where Bailey had him essentially on the lead when the fractions were much faster than average, thus he was susceptible and ultimately was passed in deep stretch by the other Dick Mandella entrant. Even Rachel Alexandra last year had the huge advantage in her perfect nine race campaign where she was either on the lead or just off a horse so that she had no chance to get blocked or lose momentum at any point. Although, we witnessed how this nearly backfired with an over-confident ride by Calvin Borel during the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, where she desperately held off closer Macho Again (but never again returned as the same horse). Finally, perhaps the last horse to exhibit as much aversion to running when leaving the gate was the infamous Silky Sullivan, whose name is now used to describe a horse that falls 20 - 30 lengths off the lead until the final stretch drive. His career stats from the late 1950's prove how ineffective this running style can be with only 12 wins and 1 second from 27 lifetime starts! Closers who have to swing wide around the turn or who lose momentum waiting for a hole to open truly have to be several lenghts better than the rest of the field to make up for this tactical disadvantage. And on Breeders' Cup Saturday for once, Zenyatta could not overcome this.
We're not ready to let go of the Big Z - especially now that most Americans east of the Mississippi River have seen what all the fuss is about. Mike Smith desperately wants a do-over. Californians shutter when imagining her "retiring" to Kentucky. The NTRA and racing journals have just now realized how bright Zen's star burns (and how much revenue she is bringing in with special editions, posters and hats). But most importantly, we need Big Z to come back for fans like little Megan from Bardstown. This was the first race ever attended by the 10 year-old and she was treated to one of the greatest BC Classics (if not races) of all time. Do you think Megan came to see Blame or Goldikova or Uncle Mo -- hell no!
E's letter to Zenyatta:
Do you realize how much pure, unbridled joy you have brought to so many? You have inspired so many people in all types of trying circumstances to keep fighting and to never give up with your effort on the track and your hospitable, infectious personality in the barn area. You let us all be a part of your life and share in your plethora of success. You were even gracious enough to put your training on hold for an interview with 60 minutes (even though they "only" sent Steve Kroft, when Leslie Stahl would have been a much better choice for you!). I was one of the fortunate fans who lived near Oaklawn Park and was able to see your strut, feel your inspiration and be touched by your greatness a few times - most are not so lucky. There's a reason the only names being referenced to you this week were horse of the last decade Cigar and the legendary Secretariat. Come back and race longer to let your legacy continue to grow and shine your light as an inspiration to so many others.
I visited Cigar on Friday before the Breeders' Cup at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington and he is totally bored. Don't get me wrong, Cathy and the volunteers do a fabulous job taking care of him and ensuring his quality of life, but he's still trapped inside a fenced stall just slightly larger than the size of my office for the majority of his day - and I know that I feel caged! And contrary to popular belief based on your size, you are - in fact - a woman, so your breeding value for one season can't be more than what you will certainly earn on the race track, with or without appearance fees. And now that you have an ever-so-small blemish on your record of perfection, you have no more pressure on future races - just run for fun! So what I'm trying to say Zenyatta is that we all love you - can't you please stay and play a little longer?
Your Admiring Friend,