The marvelous mare Zenyatta was featured on 60 Minutes on Sunday night and while the lead story was excellent, I was particularly happy to find several added features on their website at 60 Minutes Overtime. (See video below.) The additional coverage, in particular, the horse whisperer feature demonstrates how easy it is to become enamoured of a horse.
Is Zenyatta the best race horse ever?
That Zenyatta inspires people to talk about horse racing is good even though the mare brings out the best and worst in racing fans - based on the vitriolic commentary online, it seems one can only either love her or hate her. There's no middle ground. In the midst of the 2009 Horse of the Year debate, when every racing fan with a computer voiced an opinion, I was decidedly pro-Rachel. In my mind, the three year-old Rachel had a stronger campaign beating the boys twice - first against her age group in the Preakness and then fighting valiantly to defeat her elders in the Woodward. The voters awarded the honours to Rachel Alexandra.
Life at the stable
In 2010, Zenyatta has remained undefeated through five G1 starts including a trip over the dirt at Oaklawn to win the Apple Blossom. She's been the overwhelming favourite each and every start and has amassed earnings of $930K. But it's still not enough. I hate to say it (especially with similar talk all over the web), but...if Zenyatta does not win on Saturday night at Churchill Downs, I don't see how she can be awarded 2010 Horse of the Year. Three year-old filly Blind Luck has had a memorable campaign with five wins going into Friday's Ladies Classic including an exciting trio of photo finishes with Havre de Grace. One would also have to consider Lookin At Lucky who has made $1.7M in 2010 despite the heartbreak of a Kentucky Derby result that had more to do with post position than talent. If Martin Garcia guides Lookin At Lucky to redemption at Churchill over Zenyatta, then surely Baffert's not-so-lucky fella deserves the Horse of the Year nod.
Despite the heresy of the above statements, I'm not a Zenyatta hater. I think she's brilliant. Even though I backed Rachel Alexandra for 2009 Horse of the Year, I always believed that Zenyatta was the better racehorse. It's just that, on paper, Zenyatta was only truly challenged once - and she came through spectacularly to win the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. I wish we had seen Zenyatta in more of those types of races even if it meant losing. A loss does not detract from greatness. Secretariat lost five times. Seattle Slew was outfinished three times. Even Man O' War came up empty once. I would trade all three of Zenyatta's Clement Hirsch victories for just one start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But those are not my victories to give away and one has to respect the perfect record put forth by trainer John Shirreffs and the sensational Zenyatta.
Toughest Race of the Year
Even if the big mare rolls home in front on Saturday, to join Tiznow as the only two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner, the debate over her rank in horse racing history will rage on. (Call me biased, but Northern Dancer is surely the greatest thoroughbred of all time - even with the four losses.)
Horse Whisperer: The charisma of Zenyatta
With her retirement looming, I'm thankful for the 60 Minutes piece that allowed racing fans a closer look at the personality of the special mare. Anyone who has spent time on the backstretch has fallen for the personality of a horse. I've fallen for several horses at Woodbine and none of them were in the class of Zenyatta. Some horses are big and dumb. Others are gentle and kind. Some you admire for their cantankerous nature. 60 Minutes gave us a view of an intelligent, caring animal. I hope the video of 60 Minutes staffer Michelle Boniface planting a kiss on the nose of Zenyatta helped melt the hearts of some East-coast voters and inspired some new fans to tune into our sport. But even if Zenyatta fails on Saturday, and ultimately in the Horse of the Year voting, her positive prime-time exposure on national television is a win for horse racing.
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I'll have a photo essay report from Saturday's Woodbine card posted soon including coverage of the River Memories and Princess Elizabeth Stakes.
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