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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When it is so perfect that everybody at the track is looking down the stretch gauging the distance from the closing horse to the frontrunning horse to the wire and screaming for something far more significant than a horse race or history or really anything tangible, you almost want to freeze the moment, never knowing how it ends.
Zenyatta was a feeling. Just like Smarty Jones was a feeling at the 2004 Belmont Stakes. And every time you are there for something you may never experience again is a feeling, along with a concern that you may never get it back.
You can’t script horse racing’s storylines. The best of them have more than a bit of fantasy. The action on the track consists of a few minutes so the opportunity to feel it must be developed over time, the years it took to develop a champion, the weeks leading up to a big race, the final moments when the horses come on the track.
The one thing the sport consistently gets wrong is the endings. The humans can only do so much. Sometimes, the racing gods determine the outcome.
Zenyatta passed 117 horses in her brilliant 3-year-career. If just about everybody in the Churchill Downs crowd of 72,739 had their way early Saturday evening, it would have been 118.
The great mare, however, finally found two obstacles she could not overcome – racing reality and a really tough colt named Blame.
Jockey Mike Smith wanted to take the blame for Zenyatta’s first defeat, but there was none to be ascribed. The shock wasn’t that she finally lost. The miracle was that she won for so long.
Zenyatta’s career will end with those 19 consecutive wins and one loss, by a head to Blame in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Blame likely will be voted 2010 Horse of the Year and that is fine. The colt had a terrific year and won the sport’s championship race.
That will be just an award. There is one of those every year.
What will linger is the emotion of anybody who saw Zenyatta charge at Blame, the wire and perfection in those final yards. That she didn’t get there will matter in some historical context. That she was trying so hard to get there will matter more.
Which is why the great mare’s trainer John Shirreffs removed the barricades around Barn 41 yesterday morning. He wanted anybody who was there to get right next to Zenyatta while she was grazing. It is why dozens of cars stopped on Longfield Avenue to take in the scene outside the barn.
Asked if he had watched the replay, Shirreffs said: “Well, maybe later. It was her last race. It’s all over. Why watch it again?”
He will watch it someday and he will see the horse of his lifetime stroll out of the starting gate. By the time the field had gone a quarter-mile, Zenyatta was 10 lengths behind the second-to-last horse, seemingly startled by the amount of dirt coming her way.
Zenyatta had only raced on dirt twice before and that was against a six- and then five-horse field. There were 11 horses ahead of her in the Classic and the dirt was flying back. Smith went through all six pairs of goggles. Kickback was never an issue on the synthetic surfaces in California where she raced the other 17 times.
The field consisted of three divisions – the four frontrunners, the next seven and Zenyatta. As the horses ran around the far turn, the first four began to retreat. The next seven were closing on them. And Zenyatta was in gear.
By the quarter pole, all 12 horses were within 5 lengths. It was very congested. Quality Road backed up into Zenyatta’s path. Smith had to alter her course slightly. Then he had to swing her outside a few other horses for a clear path. Blame, meanwhile, found a crease. And was gone. At least he looked gone.
Zenyatta had to make up 5 lengths in the final 440 yards. She ran the last quarter-mile of her career in a tick under 24 seconds, about as fast as a horse can go at the end of a mile-and-a-quarter race. She rolled past Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. In the final yards, she seemed to be gaining a few inches with every stride. She fell maybe 6 inches short. The wire came too soon.
“I feel like I let her down,” Smith said. “I left her too much to do.”
Really, bad racing luck got her squeezed at the break, the flying dirt put her too far back and the traffic is just part of racing. Smith and Zenyatta were simply victims of circumstance.
“I truly believe I was on the best horse today,” Smith said. “If I had to blame anybody, it would be me.”
He shouldn’t. But his emotion is understandable. When perfect is that close, who doesn’t want perfect?
Horses run as fast as they can. Zenyatta was different. She ran as fast as she had to. She would beat inferior opponents by small margins and confuse the unknowing. The mare simply was determined to pass all the horses in front of her and do nothing more than necessary.
When it seemed impossible for her to catch Blame and she had to run really fast just to get close, she did it, just like she did when she won the 2009 Classic. She earned a 111 Beyer speed figure in defeat.
Zenyatta was to be flown back to California last night. She will be there a month and then head to Kentucky where she will be bred next year.
If you’ve seen the movie “Secretariat” you saw an actor playing the young Seth Hancock when he took over Claiborne Farm in 1972 and put together that syndication deal after Secretariat’s memorable 2-year-old season.
Blame is co-owned by Claiborne. Blame will stand stud next year at Claiborne in Paris, Ky. Thirty-eight years after he took over the farm where Secretariat lived out his life, Hancock very likely has the farm’s first Horse of the Year in its 100th year.
“I’m just proud to win the race,” Hancock said. “I take no pride in beating Zenyatta. She is what she is. She’s awesome. She’s been great for racing. Her human connections are wonderful people and I feel bad for them.”
Blame has raced five times at Churchill and won four. It was Zenyatta’s first start under the Twin Spires.
$1.8 million was bet on Zenyatta to win, and $163 million on the 14 races over 2 days.
If one star left the stage, another may have emerged. Uncle Mo overwhelmed the Juvenile, earning a Beyer figure of 108, the kind of number that could win the Kentucky Derby in 6 months. And if the colt improves, watch out in 2011.
The amazing Goldikova won her third straight Mile. As fast as Zenyatta was running at the finish, Goldikova was going even faster, running her final quarter-mile in 23 seconds.
Maybe we can split the distances, conjure up a surface and have an imaginary race between two of the greatest mares in history.
That new fall-racing bonanza at Parx Racing paid national dividends. Chamberlain Bridge, who won the Turf Monster on Labor Day, took the Turf Sprint. And Pennsylvania Derby winner Morning Line led until the final strides of the Dirt Mile.
Zenyatta’s presence overwhelmed the event. She was the story. And who knows when or if there will be another like it.
Man o’ War lost once. Native Dancer lost once. Now,
Zenytta has lost once.
Those horses are still considered among the all-time greats. They just were not perfect. Zenyatta was perfect from November 2007 until November 2010. She will be great forever.
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