Considering Zenyatta

I know basketball is firing up and football is in midseason but we’re closing in on the Breeders’ Cup and I find myself taking a closer look at the career and place in horse racing history of Zenyatta, the 19-for-19 queen of horse racing who will finish her career in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Just wanted to share this compilation of her 19 come-from-behind victories, as produced by TVG. If this doesn’t make you think about her feat, I’m not sure what will.

I’ll pass this along, just to take us back a year. This is the column I wrote after Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, in what we thought then was her final race:

Horse of the Year should be Zenyatta

By ERIC CRAWFORD, Nov. 8, 2009

ARCADIA, Calif. — Moments after the magnificent mare Zenyatta had run from last in the Breeders’ Cup Classic field all the way into horse racing history, trainer John Shirreffs was asked whether she should be the Horse of the Year.

“You tell me,” Shirreffs said.

All right. She is. And those are not easy words to type.

Rachel Alexandra’s historic campaign was the best in history for a 3-year-old filly – maybe for any filly. She destroyed fillies her age, she beat the boys of her age, she beat older female and male horses. She was the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. She won five consecutive Grade I stakes.

Certainly, she accomplished more from a purely competitive standpoint this year than Zenyatta. And here’s a confession – if it were about personal sentiment, I’d pick Rachel, every time.

But if you win the Super Bowl, you get the trophy.

Zenyatta is Horse of the Year and, with 14 wins in 14 career starts, a horse for the ages. Shirreffs is trainer of the year, after winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (with Life Is Sweet on Friday) and Classic back-to-back.

And Jerry Moss is owner of the year, for putting his mare’s perfect record on the line against the world’s most accomplished male horses, nine of them Grade I winners.

Trainer Bob Baffert, whose Richard’s Kid finished sixth in the Classic, said that if Zenyatta doesn’t get at least a piece of the Horse of the Year award, “it would be a travesty.”

If the Eclipse Award folks have any sense of what happened this year in their sport, whichever of these two distaffers doesn’t win Horse of the Year should be honored in some significant way.

It’s rare for athletes to match the moment. Both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra did that all spring, summer and fall.

But Zenyatta’s moment was the biggest.

Give Moss credit for making the moment possible. He knows about the big stage. The record company he co-owns was home to some of the biggest acts in rock history. The success of horse racing, he said Saturday, “is all about building stars.”

His decision to run Zenyatta in the Classic did just that.

Though she was made the favorite, many big-time handicappers had written her off. She had appeared to be slowing down. She hadn’t faced outstanding competition this year and had never faced males.

Saturday, when she overcame a disastrous start and had to shift wide before rallying to win, she changed that.

Her victory was not the product of fluke circumstances or a perfect trip. Perhaps she handled Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface better than some, but it was hard to feel, as she pounded home, that she wouldn’t have won anywhere, even the parking lot if they’d asked her.

For horse racing, it was a crowning moment in a year that featured some historic ones. About the only missing moment was seeing Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra face each other. The latter’s owner, Jess Jackson, felt his filly had done enough and didn’t want to race her on a synthetic surface.

I’m not going to criticize that decision. But sometimes, you must be present to win. And win is all Zenyatta has done.

“She’s sent from God,” jockey Mike Smith said. “I think He wanted a horse.”

Let’s hope He sends some more.

As they led her out of the winner’s circle for the last time, people scrambled around the track to pick up the petals that fell from her garland of flowers. It was a storybook ending to a scrapbook year.

Clip it, mount it, save it. The last picture is Zenyatta crossing the finish line as a champion, and then, after a Santa Anita sunset, boarding a van back to her stall at Hollywood Park, with a Hollywood ending.

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