Horse racing has its own way of doing things — its own language, its own literature, its own history, rhythms and even media.
The turf-writer view of Zenyatta and her place in history after finishing second by a head to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Saturday is a fairly straightforward one.
She built one of the most remarkable records in racing history — winning her first 19 races — and by winning one Breeders’ Cup Classic and nearly two stamped herself as one of the great female racehorses who ever lived, perhaps the greatest.
But even the heretofore acknowledged top distaffer — Ruffian — ranked only 35th on the list of greatest racehorses of the 20th century as determined by a panel selected by The Blood Horse magazine, and it’s difficult to place Zenyatta far above that, based on racetrack accomplishment alone.
She would seem to fit in the class of star of a Seabiscuit or John Henry, horses of longevity who garnered a fervent sentimental following that exceeded even their accomplishment, though she would not likely rank quite on a level with those two.
Certainly, on a list of the greatest horses of the young 21st century she can lay claim to a very high spot, with a good chance to hang onto it over the years.
She also had the misfortune of running at a time when no single campaign of hers ever was found to be more outstanding than a chief rival’s, denying her the most prized award in her sport, the Eclipse Award for American Horse of the Year.
Her owners put all their eggs into the 2010 Classic, then saw it shattered by Blame, who not only won better races leading up to the Classic, but now has a victory over her on his resume. From the traditional horse racing perspective, Blame is horse of the year.
Now join me in leaving the horse racing world. Zenyatta is a horse for the ages. No matter how the Eclipse Award voting winds up, she may well have been the only Hall of Famer on the track for the Classic on Saturday.
Eclipse organizers made a terrible mistake last year in not letting voters split their ballots for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. For Zenyatta to become the first female ever to win the Classic but not to receive racing’s highest honor was a missed opportunity. For the list of winners of horse of the year not to include her name will be an unfortunate void.
A year ago, I said Zenyatta should win the award because she was the best in the biggest race — after completing an unbeaten campaign. That’s not to say the winner of the Classic automatically gets the award, but that the Classic should count more than other races. Using that same reasoning, Blame should get the vote this year.
Certainly, there’s precedent for sentiment swaying the award — otherwise John Henry wouldn’t have beaten Slew o’ Gold in 1984. Without question, Zenyatta is the sentimental favorite this year. Only three others her age or older have won the Eclipse Award since its inception — Forego, John Henry and Cigar. Special company.
At a time when the sport was reeling over questions of the frailty of its animals, Zenyatta’s huge presence and stature turned the attention of fans once again to the sport’s beauty and possibility.
Regardless, none of these votes or rankings matters as much outside the horse racing world as inside it. For many of us, Zenyatta was as marvelous an animal as we ever watched in person.
Her legacy shouldn’t be reduced to the subjective judgment of an award or any historical ranking. On Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, a crowd greeted her when she came out to graze. Over at Blame’s barn, the scene was quiet.
For many, Zenyatta is more than horse of the year; she’s the horse of a lifetime.