So much of the high-level sports competition we watch is extraordinary that we come to expect it and often don’t remark about it when it happens. That’s why I want to tip you off about a coming event that’s sure to produce something truly memorable.
I refer to the Breeders Cup Classic, the annual highlight of Saturday’s Breeders Cup card that’s regarded as the world’s championship of Thoroughbred horse racing. In the field will be Zenyatta, a 6-year-old bay mare who’ll be trying to repeat her winning performance in last year’s race. She’s undefeated in 19 career starts, an unprecedented achievement. Saturday’s outing is likely to be her last, and your last chance to see her in action. Better do it while you can.
A heads-up is necessary because, these days, horse racing gets about as much Sports Center time or sports-page ink as volleyball or water polo. ‘Twasn’t always so; in the first half of the last century the erstwhile Sport of Kings ranked with baseball and boxing as America’s favorite sporting interests.
You might be interested to know that this nation’s first sports superstar was equine, not human. Dan Patch, a record-setting pacer (a horse that pulls a buggy), wowed ‘em on the state-fair circuit in the first decade of the 1900s, regularly drawing paying crowds of upwards of 100,000 people for his races. Tens of thousands of folks would come just to watch him work out. Products were named after him, starting with things like animal feed and harness and branching into cigarettes, chewing tobacco, a soft drink and a washing machine, among other items. “The Great” Dan’s owners were said to have reaped some $13 million from him before he died in 1916, a barn-full of money in those days.
In today’s urban society, of course, one rarely encounters horses, and being a serious fan of their endeavors is the sort of scholarly pursuit that’s no longer in vogue. I’m a Saturday regular at the horse book at Turf Paradise race track in Phoenix, and, at 72, I think I bring down the average age of the clientele. It’s occurred to me that in 15 or so years just about all of us will be gone, and few replacements are in sight.
But you don’t have to be a Racing Form nerd to appreciate Zenyatta. For starts, her perfect record is unmatched in racing’s long history, the closest to it being Man o’ War’s 20 wins in 21 starts during his brief, long-ago career (1919-20). By contrast, Citation, another contender for greatest-ever honors, was 32 of 45, Secretariat was 16 of 21 and the late-blooming Seabiscuit was 33 of 88. Furthermore, 14 of Zenyatta’s wins have come at the Grade I level, the sports highest. That’s a record for fillies and mares (a filly becomes a mare, and a colt a horse, at age 5), as are her lifetime earnings of $6.4 million.
Zenyatta’s sex also plays a role in her singularity. Unlike in humans, physiological differences between male and female horses for purposes of running aren’t great, and, indeed, Zenyatta is both taller and heavier than was the famously muscular Secretariat. But while it’s not unheard of for a gal to beat the guys in horse-racing classics, it is highly unusual. For instance, only 39 fillies have started in the Kentucky Derby’s 136 runnings, and just three have won, the last being Winning Colors in 1988. Similarly, Zenyatta’s victory in last year’s Breeders Cup Classic was the first for her sex since the event was inaugurated in 1984.
Lastly, Zenyatta’s running style is the sort most people love to watch. She’ll trail the field most of the way, seemingly out of it, then charge down the home stretch to pass all and sundry. Her 2009 Breeders Cup win, against an otherwise all-male (and quite accomplished) field, fit this mold. Check it out on web video; I get a chill every time I see it.
It wouldn’t be a racing story without a screw-up element, and this one’s is large. Last year’s racing co-sensation was another freakishly fast female, the filly Rachel Alexandra. She beat top-flight colts several times en route to a triumphant season that culminated with her edging Zenyatta in Horse-of-the-Year voting. Rachel’s owners, however, ended her campaign before the Breeders Cup, so the two didn’t meet.
A Zenyatta-Rachel match race this year would have drawn a national and even worldwide spotlight racing sorely needs and rarely gets. Unfortunately, but typically, the doofusses who run the sport couldn’t or wouldn’t make it happen. Rachel returned to the track but never quite matched her 2009 form and wound up being retired in September, still never having faced Zenyatta..
So the best we can do is watch Zenyatta take on the boys again in Saturday’s Classic, with a total purse of $5 million at stake, but that’s okay. History will be made, and you should take the opportunity to be there, if only via TV.
Don’t wait for the movie.