If you're reading this before November 6, 2010, you might want to hurry to Churchill Downs track in Louisville, Kentucky for the chance to be there when the legendary Zenyatta runs her last race in the Breeder's Cup. (Or, yeah, you could watch it on tv.) If you're reading after November 6, scroll down for results.
Zenyatta's six years old at this writing, a cheerful brown horse with a big following. As a yearling with classy breeding, Zenyatta sold for $60,000. This was kind of cheap, allegedly because she had ringworm. Here she is at auction at Keeneland in 2005, an experience she seems neither to have detested nor enjoyed.
She was bought by Ann and Jerry Moss, Moss being the M in A&M records. She's named after the album Zenyattà Mondatta, by The Police (signed by Jerry Moss). She's trained by John Shirreffs.
Zenyatta was a tall girl, slow to get her growth, which is why you didn't see her in the Kentucky Derby or the other Triple Crown races (only for 3-year-olds, and too early in the year for gangly Zenyatta).
Photo: Banamine/James Wood, courtesy of Caroline Betts's Photos. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike. http://www.flickr.com/photos/banamine/5014511275/in/photostream
Her first race (“maiden” as they call it in racing) was at Hollywood Park in late November 2007, against other beginners. In the video, the announcer concentrates on the front runners, barely mentioning Zenyatta as she trails far behind. Suddenly he notes that “Zenyatta is closing nicely” as she comes up on the outside. He reverts to the horses in the lead, but “Carmel Coffee has the lead, but you better take a look at Zenyatta to run by!” Which she does. And wins by three and half lengths. (A “length” is about the length of a horse's body – 8 feet.)
In her second race, also at Hollywood Park, they knew Zenyatta was promising, but they didn't understand her yet. “Zenyatta broke very slowly,” the announcer says critically. “A bad start has Zenyatta at the back of the pack,” he says a moment later. The horses at the front battle to overtake each other. Late in the race, “Here comes Zenyatta.” As she pulls ahead to win by three lengths, he exclaims, “Zenyatta is making a mockery of this field!”
Her third race was in the El Encino Stakes, and again we hear that she's “a little slow to get going.” We hear about the horses in front with occasional mention of how far back Zenyatta is. Finally the announcer gets excited. “Now Zenyatta's lengthening her stride! ...Zenyatta's – just an amazing coverage of ground, she just covers so much ground with her bounding stride!” She wins.
Fourth race, the first at the grade 1 stakes level, and by now the announcers should know that late in the race they're going to be gasping, “Here comes Zenyatta!” Why not script a new line?
You can find more races on YouTube. In the 2008 Lady's Secret Stakes, for example, another filly, Model, tries a similar late-run come-from-behind strategy, but Zenyatta comes from even further behind, even later, and wipes her off the map.
She runs against fillies, she runs against colts, she carries heavy weights, and she saves her rush for the very end, coming from second to last, last, and “dead last” to leave the others in her dust. It's a great plot – I never get tired of it – and she loves it too. She's undefeated, having won 19 out of 19 races.
By now the announcers are coming up with new lines. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's ZENYATTA!” says the announcer for the 2010 Apple Blossom Handicap.
People love her because she wins, because of the way she wins, and because she visibly delights in her work. (I myself would enjoy athletics more if I always won.) In the paddock before the race, Zenyatta prances, raising her forelegs high and pawing the earth. YouTube also has many clips attempting to set her “dancing” to music (without complete success). Here's a non-musical example:
In 2009 Zenyatta ran in the Breeder's Cup Classic, a race my sister, trying to get the significance of the thing through my head, emphatically describes as the “pinnacle zenith of the whole deal.” It's open to horses of all ages. Really really good horses of all ages. Naturally, Zenyatta ran “dead last” much of the way, leaving so much distance to make up that the announcer said, “If she wins this, she'll be a superhorse!” She won it.
She was supposed to retire in 2009, but to wide rejoicing, was raced again in 2010. Her final race is scheduled to be the November 6 Breeder's Cup Classic, that old thing again, for a purse of $5 million. Will she win? Maybe, maybe not. It's a horse race.
When it's over, she'll retire. To spend more time with her family.
I'm sad to say that Zenyatta didn't win her last race. She came within a nose.
Her jockey, who blames himself, was even sadder, weeping and saying the loss was his fault. “She should have won and it hurts,” he said. “She ranks up there with the greatest of all time.”
Zenyatta is used to running on artificial surfaces, and was perhaps surprised to have a lot of dirt kicked up in her face. She persevered and did her famous surge at the end, coming from way farther back than usual. The announcer sounds as if he thought she was winning it. Here's the last 20 seconds of the race.
“She ran a hell of a race, second by a nose, she was just flying, just flying,” says my sister. “She ran a totally remarkable race.” I asked if Zenyatta knew she lost. “She pricked her ears after she crossed the finish line like she thought she'd won. I can imagine she thought she'd won.”
I hope she did.