I've followed her since I first saw her run in the Apple Blossom, her first and only start on dirt, when she walloped the champion Ginger Punch at Oaklawn last spring. Since then, she's become nothing short of a "living legend," to quote Trevor Denman, with untouchable class and a legacy that will live on for generations.
Yet, I wasn't rooting for Zenyatta to win the 2008 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. She was facing my other true love, Curlin.
There's no question to me that Curlin deserved to win his second Horse of the Year title. In 2008, he won the Dubai World Cup by a then-record margin of 7 3/4 lengths, came back to America to win the Stephen Foster, went on to win his second Jockey Club Gold Cup, and when he tried turf for the first time, he suffered the first loss of his 2008 season to a Breeders' Cup Turf winner, Red Rocks. Curlin raced against all who would face him, on two continents, three surfaces, at five different tracks, on fast tracks, and in the slop.
In contrast, Zenyatta dominated in a perfect season, going on to win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic and the Eclipse Award for Champion Older Female. She won on four different tracks, on two surfaces, and beat many talented fillies and mares. Unfortunately, many of these competitors were the same ones, were only on perfect tracks, and she never once faced males.
John Shirreffs, Zenyatta's trainer, has been bitter about her loss to Curlin for Horse of the Year ever since, but he certainly has done nothing this year to back up why she deserves another shot at winning the title.
A champion is measured not only by brilliance, but by diversity, overcoming what obstacles are thrown at him or her. When the track came up a bit sloppy on the morning of the Louisville Stakes, Zenyatta had the opportunity to prove her stature by trying a new surface condition for the first time. If she were to continue her complete domination on dirt by cruising in the slop, Zenyatta would confirm her bid for this year's HOTY honors. Shirreffs at one time said he thought she'd be even more of a threat on dirt. But when the time came for Zenyatta to shine against new opposition, against a field she'd never seen before, he pulled her out. He denied her the chance to show us what other talents she may possess. In doing so, I've not only lost respect for him as a trainer, I feel cheated as a fan of this great horse.
Curlin may not have won when he was placed on turf and on synthetics for the first time, but he ran his guts out to try. It's not easy for a horse to transfer from one surface to another, yet it has been said it's probably easier for synthetic horses to adapt to dirt after starting on the fake stuff. If Zenyatta really is better on the dirt than she is on synthetics, she should be given the opportunity to prove so. Running only in perfect conditions is no way for a champion to be made. And I dare say she must be tested to prove her champion status.
A lot is already being said about Zenyatta potentially having a showdown with the amazing 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra this fall. I hope this happens. However, I don't wish it to be on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride, where Zenyatta will have all the advantage. Zenyatta has had enough of an advantage, getting everything pretty much her way. It's time she duke it out, it's time she get roughed around a little. It's time she shows us what she's truly got inside of her.
I think the synthetics will do to Rachel what it did to Curlin, and that's not a level playing field. Obviously, English turf horses will mow over our dirt horses if you place them on synthetics. Synthetics are NOT DIRT. So, if Zenyatta is best on dirt, and Rachel is best on dirt, put two and two together. Race this champion mare and this champion filly where they run best, and do it fair and square; no scratches because of imperfect track conditions, this isn't a game for the faint at heart. This is a game for the iron-willed.
Zenyatta is racing in her second straight Grade II Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park this Saturday. Whoop-de-freaking-do.