10/03/2010 8:13PM

Automatic Zenyatta


Alonso Quinonez, welcome to the club. Jumping off Hollywood Oaks winner Switch after the Lady's Secret on Saturday at Hollywood, Quinonez uttered those words now becoming familiar. "I thought I had her beat," he said, figuring everyone would know who "her" was. There was an echo, though, variations on a theme, from the lips of jockeys who for an intoxicating few moments, deep in the stretches of Santa Anita, Hollywood or Del Mar, thought they would be the one to deliver the blow that knocked Zenyatta off her pedestal.

"I thought I won it," said Tyler Baze, dizzy with disappointment, after Zenyatta caught Anabaa's Creation at the wire in the 2009 Clement Hirsch at Del Mar. "I didn't know where she was, but I knew she was coming. She came and just got us."

"I was inside the sixteenth pole," said Ramon Dominguez after Gio Ponti gave him everything in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. "That's when I heard the commotion from the public. I looked over and saw her and thought, 'Okay.' There was nothing I could do."

"I don't know what to say," said a disheartened Martin Garcia last summer, after St. Trinian's emptied her tank in the Vanity Handicap. "I can't say anything right now. I couldn't have asked her for any more. The other mare is just too much horse."

Rafael Bejarano was more circumspect after his near-miss in August aboard Rinterval in the 2010 version of the Hirsch, when Zenyatta beat him a neck. Bejarano noted that he inherited a pace he did not necessarily want that day, and that had he been able to sit behind horses early the result may have been different. This speaks highly of Bejarano's self-confidence, and in his belief that nothing is ordained. For a slightly more reality-based point of view, he needed only to consult with Garcia, Baze, Dominguez or the rest of riders on the list who have been aboard the last horse passed by Zenyatta in each of her 19 wins.

Bejarano, sorry to say, did not get a chance to fine-tune his tactics with Rinterval on Saturday. A message of sorts was sent the race before, when his mount, Boxeur des Rues, bolted so badly on the final turn of the Norfolk Stakes that Bejarano hit the deck. The colt took off in the direction of the chute at the head of the homestretch and, undaunted by the securely locked gate guarding the path from the backstretch to the paddock gardens, wedged his way through a narrow gap at the railing and fled toward the grandstand. Boxeur des Rues, who left a few tufts of horsehair on a bent piece of metal extending from the gate hinge, was caught before he could be claimed as a door prize by someone in the reported crowd of more than 25,000. But the 2-year-old did not look the least bit embarrassed as he circled with his relieved groom off to the side of the path while Zenyatta, Rinterval and the rest of the Lady's Secret field passed by, on their way to be saddled.

Bejarano shook it off and was ready to go again when he got word from the paddock that Rinterval had reared in her stall and tried to flip with such ferocity that the stewards had no choice but to remove her from the race. It is tempting to suggest, giving full voice to an anthropomorphic angle, that Rinterval wanted nothing to do with the monster being saddled two stalls down, especially after what had happened at Del Mar, and pulled a Quality Road, preferring to fight another day. But these odd things happen, and after giving Informed Decision and Zenyatta good fights in her last two starts it is hoped Rinterval recovers to play again.

That left Quinonez and Switch to play the part of the Washington Generals to Zenyatta's Globetrotters, and they did it well, actually making it appear as if Big Mama Z raised her pulse rate a notch. Mike Smith even smacked her a couple of times -- must have been a nervous tic -- to finish the job. And that was that. Zenyatta's 17th and final California appearance, dating back to her maiden win on Nov. 22, 2007, was in the books with another check mark.

These last few races from Zenyatta have had a ceremonial element that distracts from the intrinsic challenges of simple competition. The signs, the hats, the t-shirts, the people who come to town with tales of pilgrimage and inspiration -- this is entertaining, up to a point. But it has nothing to do with horse racing. These are people finding reason to invest in a Thoroughbred horse as a reliable hero -- thin times indeed -- just as Secretariat gave rise to unreasonable hopes that he could heal the sick and make the lame to walk, or at least provide a distraction from the headlines of Watergate and Vietnam.

Unfortunately, horse racing has disappeared so far into a niche of its own making that Zenyatta remains largely unknown beyond the game's most devout followers. As such, she is far from a Secretariat-style cure all for the Iraq-Afghanistan blues, or a soothing balm on the recession-ravaged middle class of a nation back on its heels. Still, it was nice that Penny Chenery, better known as Secretariat's mom and in town for the "Secretariat" movie premier, could be alongside Ann and Jerry Moss for the winner's circle presentation Saturday. Fine birds of a feather.

What was left properly unsaid in the flurry of another Zenyatta-palooza was the fact that it took place just four days after Rachel Alexandra had been retired. As it turned out, their only real rivalry was in the polling of those Eclipse Award voters last year who went for Rachel for Horse of the Year. Otherwise, they existed in universes that weren't even particularly parallel -- just a couple of very good horses competing at the same time in different parts of this very large country. 

It is an everlasting shame that Rachel Alexandra never recovered from the effort it took to beat older males in the 2009 Woodward Stakes. But that is the nature of the beast. Now the ball is cleanly in Zenyatta's court. Stepping up at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6 in the Breeders' Cup Classic, she has that rare chance afforded only the greatest, most romantic of athletes who arrive at their final hour with a chance to make it their finest.