That was the power of her name, her fan base and her reputation. That was all the press was – print and television – were talking about.
Zenyatta the Queen! People just could not get enough of her.
Coming into Churchill for the race, the six-year old daughter of Street Cry- Vertigineux, by Kris S, had won all 19 races in her career – a perfect 19-19 – including the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. She also won and almost all of her races in her “edge-of-the-seat” style, coming from last place to win at the last second at the wire.
Now, as she prepared for the final race of her career, hardly anyone thought there was a chance she’d lose the race. Everyone, thought she’d win the race, finish her career 20-20 and then head for a nice, quiet life as a mom.
Well, everyone thought that except for the owners, connections and fans of the other horses in the race. And, it was a strong field to be sure, and included such top horses of the race season such as Blame, Fly Down, Lookin At Lucky, Paddy O'Prado, Etched, Musket Man, First Dude, Pleasant Prince, Espoir City (Jpn), Haynesfield and Quality Road.
Blame, in particular, had been gathering more interest as the race got closer. In fact, he ended up going off as the second betting favorite.
Owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dildchneider, and ridden in the race by Garrett Gomez, the four-year-old son of Arch-Liable, by Seeking the Gold, came into the race off a stellar 2010 race season, which included wins in the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1), Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1) and William Donald Schaefer Stakes (G3), as well as a second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational Stakes (G1). There was no question, Blame had the credentials and would be a formidable opponent for Zenyatta.
Well, as for the race itself, everyone knows what happened. But, just in case (and because I want to write about it again), here’s how it unfolded.
The race began as expected, with Zenyatta in her favorite spot at the back of the pack, while the rest of the field fought it out in front of her.
But, something seemed different. While Zenyatta had always raced at the back of the pack, this time she had fallen further back than normal. At one point, 15 lengths separated her from the leader.
Coming around the final turn, Blame began working his way from midpack towards the lead, while Zenyatta began her usual charge towards the front. Then, coming down the stretch, with Blame finally taking the lead, Zenyatta put her head down and extended her stride as she had always done before. She passed all of the other horses and then hooked up with Blame for a duel to the finish.
Closer and closer she came, but for the first time in her career, the finish line arrived before she could get her nose in front and Blame took home the victory, while Zenyatta, in what might have been her final race, tasted defeat for the first time in her career.
Now, according to Merriam-Webster, among its definitions for the word “upset,” is this one: “To defeat unexpectedly.” That is a very simple, easy to understand, definition.
However, in some sports, people have found different ways to consider an upset an upset. You see, many don’t consider an upset to include a team ranked, say, No. 2 or No. 3 defeating a team ranked No. 1. They consider an upset to need a wider spread, such as having a team ranked No. 15 defeat a team ranked No. 3, for example.
So, with Blame going off as the second-betting favorite behind Zenyatta, some didn’t consider it an upset.
But, when a horse, any horse, defeats a horse of Zenyatta’s caliber – a horse that came into the race 19-19, with 17-graded stakes races victories, 13 of them Grade 1s and nine of her last Grade 1s coming in a row – then any horse that can beat her should make the result an upset. Simple as that.
Interestingly, while Zenyatta ended her career with that one loss, that one loss most probably helped her finally achieve the one thing missing from her resume – the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.
Almost immediately after the race, east coast horse racing columnists and writers, who had been skeptical of her abilities because they had not seen her race before because she was based in California, began talking about her amazing stretch run, and how she had come from so far behind the leaders and came oh-so-close to winning the race. They talked about her strength, her beauty, and, most importantly, her heart.
Yes, in that lone loss of her career, she had won over her critics, gained a whole new set of fans and believers, and captured the hearts and votes of the folks that would be deciding the horse of the year for 2010.
Sweetly, the magic of that race did not end the evening of that race though. The next day, Zenyatta’s owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and her trainer, John Shirreffs, opened their barn to visitors on Sunday morning, and all morning long, her fans got to stop by and visit with their favorite horse. It was an amazing to watch and one that all of those that were present will never forget.
Just a month later, on a very cold, evening with snow gently falling around the Keeneland Sales Barn, people started lining up to see Zenyatta one more time. You see, news got out that Zenyatta would be making one final appearance that evening and, despite the extremely cold weather (it was in the teens), people lined up and waited – waited long after she was due to appear because of airplane delays – and then finally got to see her one last time.
It was even more fun to watch the reactions of the Moss’s and Shirreffs’, as they seemed overwhelmed with the number of people that were there waiting to see Zenyatta at Keeneland one last time before she headed to Lane’s End and retirement. If the day after the Classic was considered amazing, the evening at Keeneland and her final appearance as the snow was falling, was almost magical.
Today, Zenyatta is at Lane’s End, where she will give birth to her first foal, out of Bernardini, next April. Then, the next part of her career will begin: Zenyatta, the mom.
Until then, the memory of Zenyatta will remain with all of her fans. She was, definitely, the epitome of a Queen and she helped lift her sport to heights unseen in the last few years.
Zenyatta Photo by Rick Capone; Churchill Downs 2010.
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