Zenyatta

Here’s a very touching story about the great mare by a NY Times sportswriter.

Zenyatta is an amazing horse.

“November 8, 2010, 5:00 pm

The Measure of Love in Zenyatta’s Finest Hour

By CAROLE-TERESE NASER

Carole-Terese Naser follows thoroughbred racing from Six Horses Sanctuary, an equine retirement facility, in central Maine.

Mike Smith after Zenyatta’s defeat on Saturday.John Sommers II/Reuters Mike Smith after Zenyatta’s defeat on Saturday.

Never mind losing by a nose. Four inches is somehow overlooked by the heart. The 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic was Zenyatta’s defining moment. The Classic was the only race she ever lost, but was by far her best. Here, she took the measure of top contenders. The competition was fierce. The huge mare almost got there. Like Seattle Slew in the 1978 one and a half mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, this race showed her true mettle. Blame won the race, but Zenyatta won the respect and the honors.

In the 1978 Gold Cup, Seattle Slew was the victim of a suicidal pace of 1:09 for three-quarters of a mile as he fought it out with Affirmed. Affirmed finally fell back but Exceller, ridden by Willie Shoemaker, closed the gap. Slew was headed by Exceller but fought back right down to the wire. Slew lost by a nose. Yet that race was his true defining moment. As his former trainer Billy Turner noted, that battle, where Slew was headed but came back again like a prize fighter rising from the mat, showed Slew “wasn’t done yet.’” Seattle Slew had the heart of a lion, and everyone saw the measure of it that day.

Sound familiar? While not wishing to take glory away from the excellent winner Blame, this race will always be remembered as Zenyatta’s best showing. I myself did not expect her to win and thought she’d been somewhat overestimated. But her performance was beyond extraordinary on Saturday. She was in trouble early on, with mud in her face and a track not to her liking. Yet she overcame everything in her path except the final few inches. That gantlet run showed just how much she wanted that win. What a horse.

Dear Mike Smith, please dry your crocodile tears. Smith is a jockey in love. It’s in the way he talks about his girl power mount. He glows as he sings her praises with every win, every interview. When asked about her breeding prospects, Smith stated there was no stallion good enough for her.

In the post-Classic news conference with the crestfallen Smith, he said her defeat was entirely his fault. Perhaps. He had cried after the finish, and he cried at the interview. Listening to this inconsolable rider take responsibility for the race’s outcome, I was deeply touched to see how passionately Smith spoke in defense of Zenyatta. He was the chivalrous man protecting his best girl and as heartbroken a lover as I’ve ever seen. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a man in love. Tell me that is not chivalry at its best.

Where before have I heard that kind of outpouring of love by a jockey for his filly? Smith’s grand praise and protective words reminded me of interviews with Jacinto Vasquez, jockey of Ruffian. Vasquez talked about Ruffian the same way, at all times. He spoke of her lovingly, well before she was fatally injured. Vasquez talked about how everyone loved Ruffian. We all loved Ruffian. When she broke down and was euthanized in a famous boy vs. girl match race at Belmont Park in 1975, the world was in shock. We loved this filly so well. As her jockey, Vasquez loved her perhaps most of all.

For Smith, then, it is not only about the defeat. It is about a two-year love affair and a feeling that he let his girl down in the final moment of her career. Just who let down whom … well, it doesn’t matter. This is “An Affair to Remember,” equine-style. The sort of thing that happens when the leading man falls in love with the leading lady in the movies. How could Smith not fall in love with this elegant, top shelf, gutsy lady? How could the public not fall in love with the pair of them?

As it turns out, the planet Earth at large is also in love with Zenyatta. She was embraced by the world before the Classic ever began. In the slimmest margin of defeat, we love her still. Ah, even Zenyatta is only human after all. Loved more so in imperfection. We love her now the way we love Ruffian: We carry her. In being less than perfect, we commoners pick her up protectively and carry her around in our hearts.”

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6 Responses to Zenyatta

  1. Kzinti says:

    Very touching article.

  2. leendadll says:

    I’ve heard too many horror stories of horses dieing at the track to ever get excited about horse races.

  3. snoringKatZ says:

    A perfectly fine article ruined by the writer’s inappropriate use of the word ‘crocodile.’ What was that all about?!?

    Sorry. I just spent the last three paragraphs trying to figure out where the jockey’s insincerity was. It really irks me when people do that.

  4. It was a wonderful race: Zenyatta and her jockey had nothing to apologize for. A lot of champion horses don’t like running on a wet track, and personally I’d ban racing on mud, given the number of accidents that occur then.

    I wish her owner didn’t plan to retire her now, but there’s probably more money in breeding her than in racing. Which seems awful, if you think of horses as being like athletes, and Zenyatta as being a female athlete.

  5. kimkiminy says:

    I was SO upset that she lost her last race. What a magnificent animal.

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