Friday, November 13, 2009

Hail the Conquering Hero

Originally posted in my column at Smilepolitely.com:

We will never see another horse like Zenyatta; she is the kind of horse that impresses not only in her heart-stopping stretch drives, but as an individual, pawing at the ground post-race like a Spanish fighting bull ready to charge the cape-wielding matador. If anyone had any doubts as to the extent of her greatness, as to whether or not she deserves to be ranked in the pantheon of the all-time Greats of the sport, their doubts were shattered to oblivion this past Saturday when the undefeated mare was tested against the most decorated field in Breeders' Cup Classic history. Zenyatta had every right to lose this day, and still she was able to pull herself together and push her talents to new heights, turning away this class field and embarrassing them and anyone who had dared to doubt her brilliance. Zenyatta not only became the first female horse to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, she won the hearts of everyone who was lucky enough to witness her amazing display of athleticism, turning her enemies to allies, her naysayers to her biggest flatterers.

And how fitting is it that Zenyatta be named after a classic rock 'n roll album? The mare prances and struts like a rock star; she is in essence a horse with the soul of Robert Plant, combined with the brilliance of Jimi Hendrix. It is not just Zenyatta's thrilling running style that makes her exciting to watch, but her swagger and savoir fare, dancing to each bout like a boxer on her toes, nostrils flared, mane tossing, neck bowed and bulging. Her girth alone imposes the average horse, and coupled with her reputation, it's surprising more challengers didn't try to flee the gate once they saw they were going up against Goliath incarnate. For any one of these traits, a horse should be coveted, but for a single horse to bare them all makes Zenyatta a living legend.

While Zenyatta's career has been marked by seemingly effortless victories, and most would agree she could've beaten any female in her sleep, the Breeders' Cup Classic should've proven the undoing for this great mare. Her season thus far had developed as nothing more than a less-impressive repeat of last year's same string of races, minus the Apple Blossom, and many wondered if Zenyatta had peaked and would have her unbeaten streak snapped in a test against classy males. In the 2009 edition of the Clement L. Hirsche Stakes at Del Mar, the big race mare won only by the smallest of margins, and it wasn't clear whether her regular rider, Mike Smith, had reacted too late or Zenyatta's brilliance was beginning to fade; but her return to form in the Lady's Secret proved she wasn't done yet.

Mercifully, Jerry and Ann Moss decided to take a chance with their undefeated mare and enter her in the Breeders' Cup Classic when the challenge was already shaping up to be a race for the ages, with the decision being entrusted to Mike Smith, who ultimately seemed to have the last word. It was all or nothing; Zenyatta would either prove her class against some of the best horses in the world, or she would succumb to the pressures of facing the toughest test she'd yet have to face. But she saw their challenge and called it.

Zenyatta walked into the history books the same way she pranced into every race prior, two-stepping and pawing the dirt, bowing her neck and putting on a parade for the fans packed ten-deep just to catch a glimpse of her. She would not be outshone by any Kentucky Derby or Belmont winner, or even an Arlington Million or a Queen Elizabeth II winner; going off as the overwhelming favorite, the crowd had come to see the California Colossus battle the rest in the biggest race of the year.

Scripted like a Hollywood movie, the drama before the race equaled the heart-palpitating finish. A chorus of gasps could be heard from the crowd as Zenyatta refused to enter the starting gate. Never having had a history of bad gate behavior, tensions rose as the heavy favorite was backed out and a flock of starters attempted to guide the giant mare back inside the start. Whether it was her proximity to males, her wide girth making her claustrophobic, or the sound of the helicopter overhead making her anxious, the sight of the usually collected superhorse balking at the start was enough to create a contagious spike in blood pressure in the Santa Anita grandstands.

After Zenyatta was urged inside the gate and Mike Smith remounted her saddle, a second event stalled the $5 million-dollar race. The nervous Quality Road, record-setting winner for the Amsterdam Stakes and a brilliant Florida Derby, also refused to go into the starting gate, and as he was blindfolded and urged inside, the sound of the choppers covering the race sent him into a frenzy. Never before had a Breeders' Cup race begun with such a frightening gate scene: the multiple million-dollar horse reared up in the starting gate while blindfolded, bucked and kicked open the gate, and almost got away from the starters as the rest of the field stood locked in their respective post positions. To make matters on the other horses worse, after the gates had been shaken by the delinquent Road, and the talented bay was backed out of the gates and scratched from the race, each horse that had been standing quietly in their posts was also taken out. Mentally, this was a disaster for these creatures of habit. While horses are schooled in the mornings to overcome such adversities as gate issues, breaking habit tends to confuse them and can work up a horse to run more aggressively than he normally would, or cause them not to break well at all.

The latter was the case for Zenyatta. While she has a patented gate break, slow and trailing at the back of the field, when the Classic was finally able to start and the horses were free to burst in a flurry of hoofs and screaming jockeys, the great mare hesitated. For a split-second, an eternity in horse racing, Zenyatta was standing still as the rest of the horses were sprinting away from her. Mike Smith told Blood-Horse, "We got her back in the gate, and she was standing so still I didn't want to move her. But I was a little worried when the gates opened she wouldn't move period, and she didn't. I thought, 'Oh God, no, not today.'"

But Zenyatta did eventually pick up her feet and begin to track the rest of the horses, falling at the back of the 13-horse field behind the last horse, Derby winner Mine That Bird, who also has a penchant for lagging dead last in a field before making a late-closing kick. For all intensive purposes, the start of the Classic was a complete disaster for Zenyatta. After breaking late, she began running on the wrong lead and was tossing her head. Her previous races had proven she may need to be a little closer to horses when coming from off the pace, but here she was running a $5-million dollar race of the year dead last and giving the lead horses more than a ten-length head start.

But the picture looked rosier for Zenyatta when Mine That Bird finally began to trail her; the race was beginning to take the shape Smith had imagined all along. The great mare was now running comfortably, and she was working into a good rhythm. The Classic began to mirror all the other races she had run before, just letting the rest of the field have their run while she waited patiently on their heels.

But as the field turned for home, the horses began to stack six wide at the final turn, and Mike Smith made the move that reminded us just why he is a Hall of Fame jockey. Instead of steering the big mare on the outside, as the team had become accustomed to in nearly every race before, the jockey took her in between horses in tight quarters to keep her from losing ground. "Zenyatta, if she wins this, she'll be a superhorse...," Trevor Denman called grimly to the crowd of 58,854 rapt fans. Masterfully, masterfully, Smith took her upon the backside of Summer Bird, the East Coast classics winner, and then the unsung Euro, Twice Over, and as she swung outside of that great blanket of champion horseflesh, California sunshine washed over her. California sunshine is to Zenyatta as spinach is to Popeye the Sailor Man. Finally, the stretch was all hers, and Zenyatta was allowed to stretch her great invisible wings; her immense stride unleashed with the force of a bomb blowing the rest of the competition to smithereens.

"Thisisun-be-lievable! Zenyatta, what a performance! One we'll never forget! Looked impossible!" Denman called breathlessly.

Just like in her thirteen previous races, she coasted to victory with ears pricking, galloping out without so much as a sweat. How fitting it was she returned home in her final race to the roar of Santa Anita's grandstands, the hallowed old race place that stands as the capitol for California racing. She ruled over the state with an unequaled authority, and cast down those world invaders who dared to challenger her on her home turf.

Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, eat your heart out. While rock stars may send us to dizzying heights of musical ecstasy, Zenyatta is the impossible package. She is undeniably brilliant; she is an untested, invincible champion that will live on in all the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to be alive to see her. And just like these immortal rock stars, her brilliance will be remembered far after she's gone. Zenyatta will be around for as long as we let horses do what they were born to do; she will be the phantom turning for home and circling the others with her Earth-gobbling stride, and will live in the warm, enriching breath of each California sunrise.

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